What Sea Creature Is Deadlier Than Sharks?

Steve Backshall, adventurer and wildlife TV host, tells us the truth behind his latest journey.
Steve Backshall dives alongside a shark
Fewer people are killed by sharks than lightning © Mark Rackley
By Tarquin Cooper

Swimming with great white sharks without a cage? Going face-to-face with crocs? Being hunted by a polar bear? It's all in day's work for adventurer, naturalist and BBC wildlife presenter Steve Backshall, who by the way, relaxes by climbing mountains. For his latest series, 'Deadly Pole to Pole,' he's just journeyed from the Arctic to Antarctica via Alaska and the Americas in search of some of the world's most feared animals, including some that you wouldn't expect.

He's behind you! Steve gets up close with a cobra. © Giles Badger

We're guessing this was quite a trip?

The sum of the experiences was mindblowing: being hunted by a polar bear amongst the ice floes of the Arctic; going nose-to-nose with crocodiles at the bottom of swamps; diving outside the cage with great white sharks; rappelling the insides of moulins in Alaskan glaciers; diving through cave systems in Mexico and finishing by diving with leopard seals and whales. It's been a grand adventure!

Steve Backshall climbs the Dent du Geant
Steve climbs the final pitch of the Dent du Geant © Tarquin Cooper

Sounds a miracle you survived!

If you believe some TV networks everywhere you go there's a snake, spider, shark or croc waiting to nail you. But it's absolute rubbish and it drives me nuts. I've been doing this a long time and you have to work really hard just to find these animals! Fewer than 10 people are killed by sharks a year. That's nothing. You're more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by a falling coconut.

Adventurer and Wildlife TV presenter Steve Backshall diving with a great white shark
No cage diving © Mark Rackley

But you had some scary encounters?

Diving with a leopard seal alongside an iceberg in Antarctica - that was the spiciest experience. People think, seals - you see them at the circus, they're happy and fun. But a leopard seal is a solitary animal that stalks the ice floes hunting penguins. They are brutal animals and have killed humans before. And the big difference with sharks or crocodiles is that they're very intelligent. You can tell they're sussing you out, trying to find a weakness in you.

We were in sub zero waters for 35-40 minutes with this animal. It started off giving us territorial flashes of its teeth but over the course of the dive it worked itself up into a frenzy. It was really frightening, it was grabbing at our fins and then it bit our support boat. We called it at that point. Our safety diver, who does close protection, said after that he'd go back to fighting Somali pirates any day rather than get back in the water.

Closest call ever?

My worst experience was rock climbing in Wales. It was the closest I've come to biting the big one and that was totally down to my own fault. [Steve hit the deck after a lead fall, smashing his ankle and breaking his back. The back healed, the ankle didn't.] I've had 12 operations since then. I've had my ankle fused. I don't run anymore. I will be battling that for the rest of my life.

You've climbed Cho Oyu, the world's sixth highest mountain. Everest next?

I have no desire to climb it at all. I found climbing Cho Oyu quite a disappointing experience. It was long, slow and boring. And there were so many people on it. The mountains are about being somewhere that feels wild. I'd rather do an obscure peak in the Alps. It's about being away from it all, about exploring, not following other people.

You've been to over 100 countries. Any favorite?

The more I travel the more I love home, the UK. The wildlife may not be as spectcacular as Africa but they're ours and it's where my heart is.

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