Dark Waters: “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” Review

Jeremy Wade’s Dark Waters: “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” takes place all around Alaska, a mystical state that’s equal parts beauty and brutality. Image_9750-fixed by Quinn Dombrowski. CC BY-SA 2.0

To date, no Animal Planet series has touched Jeremy Wade’s River Monsters in terms of popularity. The show’s sixth season premiere drew in 1.7 million viewers, lured in by Wade’s authenticity and tenacity.

Wade needs every bit of his determination for his new series, Dark Waters, as he investigates the decline of fish species around the world.

One episode of Dark Waters that caught my attention was “Alaska’s Lost River Kings,” in which Wade investigated the disappearance of Chinook – or king – salmon in Alaska. While this episode was fantastically done overall, I have a few minor critiques.

Minimal Spoilers Synopsis

“Alaska’s Lost River Kings” starts with a problem: Chinook salmon have become worryingly scarce in Alaska’s rivers, although the other Pacific salmon species are doing fine.

A Chinook, or King, salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Chinook2 by Spappy.joneS. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As anadromous fish, salmon begin their lives in freshwater rivers. Chinook salmon typically spend up to two years inland, according to scientist Jan Ohlberger and his colleagues, before heading to the open ocean. The fish spend between one and five years growing and feeding in the ocean, then they return to the rivers of their birth to lay the eggs that will spawn the next generation.

However, in recent years fewer Chinook salmon have been returning from the ocean. Furthermore, the ones that have made it back to Alaska’s rivers have been turning up smaller than before.

Since Chinooks are the largest and fattiest Pacific salmon, their loss could be seriously detrimental for Alaska’s human and nonhuman residents.

After introducing the problem, Wade travels all around Alaska to determine what’s happened to the Chinooks. He concludes that ultimately, no one factor can completely explain the Chinooks’ decline. However, an increase in resident, fish-eating orcas (killer whales) in the Bering Sea – where Alaska’s Chinooks spend much of their lives – is likely part of the problem.

There’s evidence that resident orcas off the coast of Alaska specialize in hunting Chinook salmon, possibly due to their large size. Mother and Child by marneejill. CC BY-SA 2.0

Review

By-and-large, “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” is a great episode. I’ve always loved Wade’s cool presentation style, which he’s held on to for Dark Waters.

The technical aspects of “Lost River Kings” are also superb: the sound is crisp and the visuals clear, and the music compliments each scene well.

That said, the introduction to the orcas near the end of the episode is a little overdone. It features a few too many shots of orcas frolicking about, coupled with music that’s mildly overdramatic. This scene wasn’t bad enough to make me swear at the television – which is something I’ve been known to do – but it could’ve been shortened.

When you admire art but have zero artistic talent, it can easily lead to bitterness and elitism when reviewing others’ work. Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

The camera work and editing in “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” is also slightly too conventional for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s excellent, but I always look for a little extra “zing” in documentary programs: a few jarring camera angles or creative bits of editing that give the film an artistic flair. I didn’t see much of this zing in “Alaska’s Lost River Kings,” although I still wasn’t brought to the point of swearing.

Of course, as a non-fiction program, Dark Waters must also be scientifically accurate.

While I was initially skeptical of the claim that orcas could be a major factor in the decline of Alaska’s Chinook salmon, my subsequent fact-checking has revealed that Wade’s claims in “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” are spot-on; he obviously did his homework.

Wade also does a great job of combining scientific and local ecological knowledge, and he does so in a way that’s neither boring nor patronizing. That alone is a major accomplishment, for which Wade deserves a sticker.

Closing Remarks

Jeremy Wade’s Dark Waters: “Alaska’s Lost River Kings” is a phenomenal episode that’s engaging, well-made, and educational. It’s missing the artistic flair that I look for in “perfect” documentaries (whatever that means), but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better wildlife program.

I strongly recommend you watch Dark Waters on the Discovery Channel on Thursday nights: it expertly combines adventure, mystery, and hard science.

Final Rating: 9/10

Sources:

4 Thoughts

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