On the night of September 19, 1981, as many as 300 people died in the Amazon River. The victims, some of whose partially eaten bodies were later found, were passengers on the riverboat Sobral Santos II. What ate them? Mammals, reptiles, fish – or something else? As extreme angler Jeremy Wade attempts to unravel the mystery on Animal Planet, he takes viewers on an exciting and educational river adventure in Brazil.


I received an advance copy of this episode of River Monsters, which is scheduled to air on April 6, and my 7-year-old grandson Nicholas watched it. He then took me through a step-by-step account of “Amazon Apocalypse,” describing some of the animals Jeremy thinks might have been responsible for the partially eaten bodies. Black piranhas that commonly reach more than a foot in length live in the river and have large, razor-sharp teeth. The redtail catfish is a beautiful and unusual long-whiskered creature that can tip the scales at more than 100 pounds. Jeremy catches, talks about, and then releases these and many more fishes from the world's largest river in his quest to determine who might have been responsible for devouring the riverboat passengers.


Most of the animals identified as possible perps in the Amazon mystery were fishes, but three were not. One, the bull shark, has been known to travel hundreds of miles up the Amazon River. Jeremy was not able to catch one on this trip but he explained what the chances were that someone might be attacked by a bull shark in the river. One reptile, the black caiman, has been implicated as a cause of human deaths in the Amazon region. Jeremy feeds a chunk of meat to a large black caiman and discusses how likely it would be for these alligator-like crocodilians to eat someone at night in the river.


One of his more unusual suspects was an aquatic mammal, the boto, a pink-colored river dolphin. I remember seeing these fascinating creatures when visiting this same region of the Amazon a few years ago. Botos allow a glimpse into the biological strength and power of this enormous freshwater ecosystem. That this is a river system so immense and long-lasting that typical sea creatures such as dolphins can evolve into freshwater forms is remarkable. The fact that a species of dolphin has developed its own identity in a freshwater system bespeaks volumes about the size and nature of the Amazon River. While in the water surrounded by botos, Jeremy discusses whether they might actually kill a person who fell off a riverboat at night.


The Amazon is truly the Big Top of the world's environmental attractions, with enough spectacular sideshows to keep anyone entertained. And Jeremy Wade has done a superb job of revealing the diversity of some of the aquatic denizens found in a river that is more than 200 feet deep in some places. At the same time, he has mixed in the intrigue of a riverboat disaster and the search for what might have caused the death and mutilation of many passengers.


Even though Nicholas gave me a thorough account of the Amazon adventure with the names and descriptions of the fishes and other creatures Jeremy Wade encountered, he did not tell me which river culprits are now believed to have killed so many people. I finally watched the whole show myself. Freshwater detective Jeremy Wade indeed came up with a reasonable explanation of what may have caused these deaths in the world's largest river, with some fascinating and entertaining educational material along the way.


Jeremy Wade delivers ecological lessons with a fine mix of suspense-filled entertainment, environmental teachings, and a lot of experience with catching fish. He told me once that one of his goals is to reach children of all ages because “they really get into strange names and obscure facts” and become an ideal audience for conservation messages. I think Nicholas is proof that Jeremy got it right.


Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Send environmental questions to ecoviews@gmail.com.