Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Not ALL denizens of the deep are 'river monsters'

I admit it, freely; I kind of like watching River Monsters, that TV program that's part fishing show/part adventure travel show/part biology documentary.

For those unfamiliar with the program, the host, Jeremy Wade, travels the world in search of monstrous river creatures that have killed or at least viciously attacked humans.

The most recent episode I watched involved him trying to track down a giant sting ray that had allegedly killed some people in the Parana River, the largest river in Argentina.

As I'm watching it, I'm thinking to myself (not for the first time, either) how much the writers and producers of these shows over-dramatize everything. I know, I know, it's good TV. Who wants to watch it, if it's boring? This program - essentially another outdoor fishing show - has come up with a unique new hook to lure viewers in (no pun intended, but hey, if it works...). But like other shows before it, (The Crocodile Hunter comes to mind) the actual dangers are often over exaggerated.

A bit gruesome looking? Perhaps.
Deadly dangerous? Not likely.

Now pay attention here, because this is important: I'm not about to say there is no risk involved in dealing with the creatures featured in the show. But life itself is full of risks, with no guarantees.

The fact is, yes, you can be injured, sometimes fatally, by a stingray, or a pirhana or many of the other denizens of the deep, whether they are freshwater or saltwater inhabitants. But there's probably a much better chance of getting killed in a car accident on a freeway in North America than being chewed to death by river monsters.

Think about it: Hundreds of tourists go out to Stingray City off Grand Cayman Island every day to snorkel with stingrays and feed them. I've been there, done that, got the ball cap. You don't very often hear about mishaps there. And if there was a high risk, they probably wouldn't do it.

There are other examples; I've enjoyed many experiences with wildife both in the water and on the land that prove the point further.

Another example of something I've done in the water that some people might consider dangerous: I've gone diving with sharks. (Got a hat and a T-shirt for that, too!)

That took place in a closed aquarium in the Maui Ocean Center in Hawaii. We were diving in about 25 feet of water, swimming around with several black tipped and white tipped reef sharks, a couple of hammerheads, and a baby tiger shark (only about six feet long). There were also a couple of large stingrays as well as a smaller spotted eagle ray that we actually took turns feeding. I didn't feel frightened or intimidated at all.

The biggest annoyance were the little fish that kept nipping my fingers every time I got some "chum" from the dive master to feed the ray, "Hihimanu." My fingers were covered with tiny cuts by the time we were done.

Now mind you, these are well-fed sharks, used to seeing divers; still, they are wild animals essentially, and not always predictable. And this particular dive took place about a week after Steve Irwin was killed by a bull ray while he was diving. (I should point out, he was always showboating a bit, taking what I often felt were some unnecessary risks just to get good footage for the TV program, so it's not surprising that's how he bought it). Besides, the ray that killed him in a freak accident was not among the species of rays that live in the Maui tank.

Where's that bat-spray?

Again, though, when all is said and done, it's all about risk management. The aquarium in Maui would not run programs like this if too many visitors were being eaten.

The next day, while diving in the ocean, I saw a gigantic sting ray about 20 feet away. Again, all I felt was a sense of awe and wonder. I never felt threatened or in danger.

So, enjoy the dramatic shows like River Monsters, shudder at the thought of blood and guts and gore and unseen monsters lurking in the waters below; but remember life is rarely as risky or dramatic as TV shows make it out to be - so don't let it stop you from enjoying adventures in the water, whether you're diving or snorkelling under the surface or paddling on top of it. For that matter, don't let fear stop you on land, either.

Just make sure that if you do dive in shark-infested waters, carry your shark-repellent bat-spray with you at all times ...

(Just kidding!)

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