Saying goodbye to River Monsters, one of the great mysteries on television

They thought it would last an hour.

When Jeremy Wade first launched his hit show River Monsters, which will kick off its ninth and final season this Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Animal Planet, they thought they’d maybe get a program out of it. The angler and explorer would take some cameras with him on a journey into the jungle, they’d catch some fish, film it, perhaps show viewers a part of the world they’d never seen before.

Now, eight seasons later, it’s built into a beloved fixture, an engaging look into the mind of an angler, yes, but also one of the great mystery shows on television.

“We always thought, well, maybe we’ll have the material for one more year,” Wade told Fox Sports recently, during a bit of downtime during the promotional tour for the final season. They kept pushing though, kept finding new stories, new fish, new parts of the world that Wade had never even considered. But after nine seasons, he says, he knew it was time.

“I think at the beginning, when it looked like it would be more than one program, I had a list in my head of fish around the world, you know, maybe we can look at some of those. We’ve just reached the point where I’ve ticked off all those boxes, plus a whole lot more.

“That’s great, but it’s also quite sad as well. It’s mixed feelings.”

Wade is weathered and handsome, and even for a TV promotional day wore his favored beaten-down fishing apparel. Unlike other outdoorsy accented TV types like Bear Grylls or the late Steve Irwin, Wade is soft-spoken, thoughtful, taking time to consider every question before answering in the gentle Suffolk accent.

Watching the show over the last eight seasons has been watching the development of Wade and his team not only as explorers but as storytellers. What began as a fun show that was meant to show off some scary fish eventually became a taut procedural – as reliable as Law & Order. It was Dr. Livingston meets Sherlock Holmes for the modern age, as Wade wandered the earth looking to find the creatures that were the stuff of nightmares.

The individual episodes, at first mainly teasers for the big fish at the end, became more nuanced, more concerned with the journey than the payoff at the end of the line. Wade and his team would track down leads, investigate red herrings, all with the final goal – solving the case.

“This idea of a sort of an underwater detective story,” he said. “There’s a crime, if you like, someone has been injured or disappeared. So, you interview witnesses. You assemble a suspect list. That kind of detective procedural analogy works really well. There were boxes that we knew wanted to tick.”

As the show grew, though, it began functioning even beyond that – it became one of the most compelling travel documentaries on television. Wade would introduce viewers to a new town, and get to work digging into the mystery of some mythical, terrifying beast. But in that digging, he would expose something deep at the heart of a place. By meeting with locals, he showed us the workings of a town, but also its myths and legends, its values, its fears.

“As time as has gone, we realized we were ticking boxes without even realizing it. That’s why it will be so sad to say goodbye. It will be hard to find a program that is so satisfying on so many levels to make, and also possibly to watch.”

Chris Gordaneer/Discover Communications inc

The show has also found new creatures to hunt, as it has moved out of the jungle and into the depths of the ocean. While it began in freshwater, by moving out to sea it discovered new terrors not in what was just around us and just out of sight, but the more sublime terrors at the depths of the ocean.

For the final season, however, they will return mostly to where they began: The freshwater rivers Wade first started writing about years ago, before he ever stepped in front of a camera, and the creatures within those rivers.

“Freshwater still holds the most fascination for me. …The places can be harder to get to. They can be so unfamiliar. All those little corners of the world, the places outsiders tend not to go. That’s where I think the real adventure is.”

As for what’s next? Wade is tight-lipped, but he is working on something that he believes shows promise. He wants people to see more of the world, to appreciate the rivers running right by us, to cherish the mysteries they hold.

“I’m hoping that this show has opened people’s mind’s up a bit. The thing about freshwater, it is this whole world that is normally unseen, and normally people don’t think about,” he said. “Without preaching at people, I hope this show will make people care a little bit more about the creatures in these rivers, and about the places they live.

“You can’t care about something if you don’t know about it in the first place. I hope I’ve opened that world up to people.”