Welcome to a very special Deep Sea Diary—our first guest blog! Karen Hawes, a producer for the TVO series Leo’s FishHeads, wrote today’s entry. Leo’s FishHeads is a science-adventure show for kids that gives viewers the opportunity to explore aquatic environments and their inhabitants.
Ask 13-year-old Alex Szarka what’s the best present he ever received and he’ll reply it was a book on sharks when he was three years old. “I spent hours looking at the photos and learning their names and thought they were the coolest creatures in the world,” he remembers. “When I learned how people were killing them, I vowed to protect them and any other fish.” At age three, Alex found his calling and for the last 10 years he hasn’t wavered.
His parents supported his newfound passion with countless trips to Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and enrollment in summer camp. It didn’t take long before Alex could ‘out-fact’ most of the experienced divers we knew. But his TV producer dad, Chris Szarka of Fifth Ground Entertainment, had no way of knowing that his eldest son’s obsession with the fish world would soon inspire a television series.
For his ninth birthday Alex decided that all he wanted was to scuba dive, but he was still too young to get his certification. So instead, he and dad, Chris, started taking pool lessons.
When Chris mentioned his weekend scuba adventures and his son’s obsession with fish while at a meeting with fellow producers Karen Hawes and Raj Panikkar, it sparked the idea of a kids’ TV series. “I never had any intention of making a children’s TV series,” Karen confesses. “But there was something about Alex’s love of fish and the fact that there hadn’t been a kids series that focused on aquatic life. It just felt like there was a series there.” Following that instinct, Karen pitched Chris and Raj on the idea and followed up with a written proposal.
The original working title was Saving Nemo and the three producers had visions of being in Mexico in March, diving with young Alex, and exploring the tropical waters. But a meeting with TVOKids executive Marney Malabar soon shifted the focus closer to home. The producers quickly discovered that fish and waters around Ontario had just as many fascinating fish stories just waiting to be told.
Leo’s FishHeads premiered on TVOKids in March. The 26-episode series features a new aquatic creature each week as the two young hosts, Christian and Sayat, help expert protect our underwater neighbours. Christian and Sayat, along with their animated cohost, Leo the Catfish, comprise the FishHeads Explorer Club. Their mission? To inspire the at-home FishHeads to head down to the riverbank, have their own adventures, and get involved in protecting our waters and the creatures that call them home. The series also spawned a game! In Leo’s FishFinders, players can help tag and monitor fish, remove invasive species, and clean up the ecosystem. New episodes of Leo’s FishHeads air weekly on Thursdays at 6 p.m.
“Given his passion and his incredible knowledge, we really wanted Alex to host the show. But by the time we were set to start filming, he was already over 6 feet tall from a growth spurt, which didn’t read as a 10-year-old— which was the look the series was going for,” producer Raj explains. “But Alex is now a certified diver and he’s come out to shoot some underwater material for a couple of our episodes. He even appears as a guest in an episode on alewifves and rainbow trout that we collaborated on with Ripley’s, which seems very fitting.”
The episode “Friend or Foe” was partially shot at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada with Senior Aquarist Kevin McAvoy. In the episode, Kevin introduces the FishHeads to the alewife and Ripley’s shark diver Mareesha Kulps, who acted as a safety diver for Alex and divemaster Mario Medarevic for the underwater portion of the shoot.
Alex’s passion has not abated; he’s built himself a 55-gallon aquarium where he’s provided a home for a number of different fish—including helping rehabilitate one with a broken back! “I never wanted to be anything else but a Marine biologist,” he says. “Maybe someday I’ll work for Ripley’s!”
You can tuna in to new episodes of Leo’s FishHeads on TVO or visit their YouTube channel for previously aired episodes.