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WILTZ: Roger dares to question Jeremy Wade of "River Monsters" fame

Roger Wiltz' daughter, Laurie, poses with deadly red piranha. (Photo courtesy of Roger Wiltz)

Jeremy Wade hosts a TV program on the Animal Planet channel called "River Monsters." The show features the pursuit of large freshwater river fish that might be capable or inclined to take human lives. Wade fishes the world over for these "river monsters" that tend to be a variety of catfish.

A recent "River Monsters" program looked into a horrific tragedy that occurred in the Amazon River city of Obidos on September 19, 1981. A large riverboat, overloaded with passengers, cargo, beer, etc., was moored at the city's wharf when it began to take on water. As the boat listed, the passengers ran to the high side. The boat sank, and only 178 of the estimated 500 passengers "thought to have been on board" swam safely to shore.

As Wade's investigation into what actually happened to the missing bodies unfolded, we learn that only four bodies were recovered. More bizarre was the fact that the bodies were mutilated and appeared to be partially eaten. Wade speculated that the bodies may have been under attack shortly after hitting the water. His program theme? What in that river was responsible for the loss of human lives as well as the damage inflicted?

What about this story aroused my attention? During the summer of 1985, our daughter Laurie, Betsy, and I spent a short week in the Colombian village of Letecia on the Amazon River. During that time we gained first-hand knowledge of almost all the possible culprits Wade investigated. Conditions were not too different. Obidos is 2,029 miles from the mouth of the Amazon. Letecia is 2,895 miles to the Amazon mouth. Only four years separated our time frames, and the seasons were similar.

Wade examined the different piranha species. In sheltered lagoons adjacent to Amazon tributaries, Laurie and I caught red piranhas, the most dangerous to humans, on light willow-like poles we borrowed from a Jagua Indian village. We used chunks of bloody meat for bait. Wade more or less dismissed the piranhas as a culprit because they live in backwaters, not the main channel. I believe that Wade's piranha conclusion is valid.

Bull sharks, a man-eater, may be the most aggressive sharks in the world. Though they are saltwater fish, they like the Amazon. I know that bull sharks inhabit the Letecia waters as our guide, Joel Mendoza, suspected that I had tied into one. If bull sharks were 2,895 miles up-river, they would certainly swim Obidos waters. Wade eliminated bull sharks on the grounds that they were too sparsely populated in Obidos waters. I might argue that point.

The botos is an Amazon freshwater dolphin that closely resembles our Sea World dolphins that swim alongside the boat when we cruise Florida waters. The only difference might be the botos's pinkish color. When we traversed the Amazon's main channel, botos often swam alongside our dugout canoe. They frequently released air, making a sound identical to that of a human passing gas. As dolphins have impressive dental work, Wade considered the botos as the Obidos man-killer but dismissed the idea.

There's a "Big Three" when it comes to Amazon catfish -- the Piraiba, the Jau, and the Red-tail or Pirarara. The Piraiba can reach ten feet in length and weigh over 600 pounds. The Jau can attain 200 pounds in weight, and the Pirarara or red-tail can weigh-in at 150 pounds. Wade gave the catfish serious consideration as bad guys.

It seems to me that of the three big catfish, Wade looked at the red-tail as being his chief suspect. I'm not going to buy into this as I see the bull shark as my prime suspect based on his reputation and past transgressions. For whatever reason, bull sharks may have been concentrated in the Obidos waters that fateful night.

I caught a large red-tail in the Amazon. Other than his pebble-grained hide, yellow lightning stripe down his side, and brilliant orange tail, he was our Missouri River flathead. When lying in the bottom of our canoe, he didn't snap his jaws at us. He's innocent as far as I'm concerned.

The Rio de Janeiro newspaper that carried the story used the words, "Of the 500 passengers thought to be on board." We have 178 survivors and four bodies recovered. The 500 number was never confirmed. No one knows how many were on board in the first place. An Amazon town is nothing like an American town. There is no census.

The newspaper account also mentions the strong current. When we were in Letecia, the current moved along at 7 mph. If the Obidos current was anything like this, bodies would have been seven miles downriver before the state of panic subsided. We're also talking the most uninhabitable country on earth! That river also holds 2,000 different species -- many that would certainly nibble on human flesh.

When we were on that river, we knew that if something happened to us, no one would care, and no one would look for us. Shipping cocaine was the only thing that really mattered as money talks in the Amazon like everywhere else. Little time and money was spent on an investigation.

To summarize my analysis, I don't believe that there were 500 people on the boat in the first place. If there were, those drowned bodies tumbling in the current had 2,000 miles to get snagged or eaten before reaching the Amazon's mouth. The four recovered mutilated bodies were the work of bull sharks. How Wade could conclude that their numbers were small when they were abundant 900 miles upriver, I don't comprehend.

Jeremy Wade's program was entertaining, but my thoughts on the tragedy hold more water. The way this column gets around, I suspect Wade will see it. Perhaps we can fish together.

See you next week with the skinny on our Maine vacation.