Freaky Freshwater Tales

Emily Cooper


It's Halloween, and that can only mean one thing: it's time for scary stories! We're taking a break from our usual content to embrace the season with our Freaky Freshwater Tales. Some of the strangest creatures in the world—both real and fictional—live in our freshwater habitats. Disclaimer: rivers are fantastic and we don't want to dissuade anyone from using them; take these stories with a pinch of salt!

The Curse of the Candiru

Man swimming stock photo Expending your last reserves of energy, you paddle to the shore. The humid air catches in your throat, and your clothes cling uncomfortably to your skin. Each stroke of your paddle makes you grit your teeth; it feels like you're pulling yourself through a pool of treacle. Even in moments like these, you know that this is the trip of a lifetime; how many people have had the opportunity to kayak the Amazon? Despite your gratitude, you can't help yourself longing for a cold shower. You find yourself gazing longingly at the river. Reminiscent of a cup of tea left to brew for slightly too long, it's not a particularly appealing colour—but your exhaustion makes you see it differently. Realistically, you know there could be anything lurking below the surface. Against your better judgement, you push that knowledge to the back of your head. The siren call of the water is impossible to ignore. You wade into the river, only stopping when the water begins to lap at your torso. You bask in the moment, letting the river wash away the day's exertion—until a strange sensation below the water breaks your revery. The niggling feeling sharpens into a fiery pain. You rush out of the water, collapsing onto the riverbank in excruciating pain. Could it be...the candiru?
Candiru are a type of parasitic catfish with an eel-like appearance. Thankfully, they are only found in the Amazon Basin. Their tiny size and translucent skin might mean that you don’t even see them coming. They feed on blood, commonly found attached to the gill cavity of other fishes. That’s nothing compared to what rumours say they do, though. If you're squeamish, look away now! It has been suggested that Candiru can actually swim up the urethra. They lodge themselves into place using the spines on their gill covers, taking up residence in the last place you’d want them. This can lead to all sorts of nasty infections, with some legends claiming that death is the only possible outcome of a candiru encounter.

A Wetland's Warning

Gloomy wetland stock photo On a crisp, autumnal evening, you brace yourself against the frigid air and head out for a walk. You venture to the wetland at the end of the street, hoping to see some crepuscular creatures before the last of the day's light vanishes. Almost immediately, you see bats swooping overhead. They wheel through the sky before plummeting towards the water, skimming along its surface with amazing precision. You're totally enthralled by their display - so much so that you barely register the golden orb floating in the distance. The more you stare, the stranger it gets. The softly glowing light looks almost comforting; you find yourself drawn to it for no discernible reason. You hesitate, exhaling deeply, watching as your breath curls into the evening in smoky tendrils. Intrigued, you decide to give chase. As you squint through the encroaching fog, you can just about make out a shadowy figure holding a lantern. You call out, but there is no response; only the echo of your own voice which hangs in the air. Quickening your pace, you push forward—but the light is always just out of reach. The chase is so intense that you barely register the inky black water seeping into your shoes, chilling your bones. It's up to your shins, then your knees, then your neck—and suddenly, the light vanishes. As the water ripples beneath your chin, you remember the tales your grandparents had told you—stories about Will-o'-the-wisp. It's too late. The world plunges into darkness, and a wicked cackle pierces the night.
Will-o'-the-wisp are a popular feature in European folklore. In some tales, they resemble a floating light, whereas in others the light is held by a 'dusky figure'. These tricky fiends are said to lurk in bogs and marshes, waiting to lure unsuspecting travellers into dangerous places—potentially even to their death. It's generally accepted that the legend of Will-o'-the-wisp developed due to an oxidation reaction which occurs when matter decays. This reaction can result in the lighting of ephemeral fires, giving the impression of a light floating in the distance.

A Savage Stone

Arid river stock photo The parched earth cracks beneath your feet. Last night was hellish; camping in the Australian outback was always going to be an endeavour, but the infernal summer heat made it even harder. In the distance, a river cuts through the otherwise arid landscape like a knife. The welcome sight of cool, fresh water encourages you to push forward. Hurriedly, you kick off your shoes and step into the water. The ecstasy of a respite from the heat washes over you. You take another step, carefully placing your feet to avoid the slippery rocks on the riverbed. Suddenly, searing pain shoots through your foot. The sensation of a dozen tiny spikes penetrating your skin causes you to cry out. Searching for the culprit, a tiny movement catches your eye. Bizarrely, the offending stone begins to move, wriggling away across the river. You stumble backwards, cursing as the water turns crimson. Your veins being to course with potent venom, and the sensation of wildfire creeps up your leg. Help could take hours to arrive...
Stonefish are found in the Indo-pacific region. Most species are marine, but can also be found in freshwater estuaries. They are fantastically camouflaged against the riverbed, looking much like a rock until they move. When they are disturbed, the spines on their dorsal fins stand upright. They are also the most venomous fish currently known, secreting potent neurotoxins from glands at the base of their spines.
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