In celebration of Survivor’s 20th anniversary, over the next couple of months, Inside Survivor is publishing a series of articles looking back at the show’s history, best moments, and most memorable characters.
“These castaways must battle the elements and each other,” Jeff Probst used to state in his grandiose introductions to each new Survivor season. The battle between each other tends to be the show’s primary focus, at least in recent years, but one must never forget how much the elements play a part in Survivor.
In its twenty-year history, Survivor has visited some beautiful but also foreboding locations, many occupied by dangerous wildlife and unpredictable weather. While some players are equipped to handle the outdoors, others have a much harder time. Today, I look back at some of the most memorable “Man vs. Nature” moments, from the scary to the funny to the downright ridiculous.
20. Shamar gets sand in his eye (Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites)
A former Marine leaving the game because he got a piece of sand in his eye might sound funny written down. And Shamar was certainly the butt of many jokes during his short stint in Caramoan. He clashed with his tribemates. He mistakenly yelled out in celebration when his tribe had actually lost an Immunity Challenge. And when he complained about his eye hurting, nobody took him seriously. The thing is, it was serious! Having scratched his cornea, medical had no choice but to pull Shamar from the game. It’s not even safe to play in the sand in Survivor!
19. The non-stop Samoan rain (Samoa)
When you think of Samoa, it doesn’t jump out as one of the more arduous locations to play Survivor, especially compared to the lion-roaming Kenyan desert or the crippling heat of Guatemala. But even the most picturesque location can become a nightmare if the weather is not on your side. Whether it was punishment for all of Russell’s lying, or perhaps Shambo conjured it up in a dream, the Survivor Gods rained down on the Samoa castaways for days. The Foa Foa tribe couldn’t even leave their shelter at one point to go strategize. And the sight of Jaison’s crinkled up hands and feet is an image I’ll always remember.
18. Elephant dung water (Africa)
You knew straight away that Kenya was going to be a tough location when you saw the tribe camps were surrounded by protective fencing to help keep out lions. But it’s the elephant poop water that was the real danger. Unlike in most other seasons, there was no water well for the Africa castaways. Their water supply was a small creek a few miles from camp. A creek that, you know, a passing elephant could stop by and take a dump whenever it damn pleased. Big Tom describing how Kim obliviously bathes in elephant dung water is both hilarious and absolutely vomit-inducing at the same time.
17. Jeff Probst’s near wipeout (Millennials vs. Gen-X)
From our Best/Worst Probst Moment 2016: “It was only a brief moment but easily one of the season’s highlights. During the Episode 4 reward challenge, a challenge that was already memorable due to Michaela Bradshaw’s tatas, a Fijian wave almost wiped out Probst and knocked him on his ass. Maybe this was nature’s way of getting him to stop forcing generational stereotypes down our throats; perhaps the aim was to drag him out to sea never to be heard from again. To Probst’s credit, despite his tumble, he managed to stay upright, letting out an almighty “Wow!””
16. Cirie versus Leaves (Panama)
Cirie is one of the most badass players in Survivor history. She is a sure-fire top ten of all-time when it comes to the social game and strategic prowess. That makes it all the more funnier that our first introduction to the “Gangsta in an Oprah suit” is her nervously picking up leaves from the ground and declaring, “I hate leaves.” It’s a humorous moment and a great beginning of Cirie’s arc from self-confessed “couch potato” to Survivor legend.
15. The volcanic earthquake (Vanuatu)
Leann Slaby might not be the most memorable castaway ever, but she was involved in two of the big highlights in Vanuatu. Her epic blindside being one of them, but also, being cut-off mid-confessional when the ground begins to shake beneath her. An eruption of one of the surrounding volcanoes causes the whole island to ripple, and the reaction back at camp is one of both fear and excitement.
14. Rough waters eliminate Pat (David vs. Goliath)
From our Most Shocking Moments 2018: “There was something so distressing and visceral about Pat’s exit. The editing of the scene probably played a huge part in the shock factor. It came at us out of nowhere. A return from commercial break was met with lightning strikes and crashing waves. Then, in the distance, crew members running up the beach with a stretcher. It was disorientating. We soon found out that Pat had taken a fall on the boat ride back to camp and was suffering serious back pain. The blue-collar New Yorker, a man who embodied the David team spirit, was wheezing in agony, begging Probst not to take him out of the game.”
13. Remove the infected! [James Clement, Jonathan Penner, Joe Dowdle, Neal Gottlieb] (Multiple seasons)
An infected wound doesn’t have quite the same immediate impact as a crashing wave or an earthquake, but it’s the most common cause of medical evacuation in Survivor. It only makes sense to combine all these moments together. Whether it’s your knee or your finger, a cut can soon become life-threatening when your battling with the elements of the Survivor jungles. And some of these exits are extremely emotional, especially Jonathan Penner’s in Micronesia.
12. Hatch bites a shark (All-Stars)
Catching a fish is a point of pride in Survivor. There have been many expert fishermen over the years. Ozzy practically made his Survivor career out of catching fish and feeding his tribemates. And we all know how attached Rupert was to his Hawaiin sling in Pearl Islands. If you catch a shark, though, you’re on a whole other level. Tom Westman has done it. Sandra has done it most recently (with the help of maniacal Tony running with it in his hand). But Richard Hatch’s tussle with the baby shark in All-Stars will always be the best for the moment when the shark bites Richard, so he bites it back.
11. Natalie becomes Ratalie (Samoa)
Okay, killing a rat doesn’t sound as impressive as wrangling a shark, especially as castaways were catching and cooking rats as far back as season one. However, Natalie’s rat dilemma (“rock or a stick?”) stands out because of how beautifully it ties into her journey arc as the underestimated beauty queen to Survivor champ. As Jaison says, “She came into this game the Southern Belle, very sweet, nice girl, but definitely not the rough and tumble Survivor-type,” and here she is walking into camp in her bikini carrying a dead rat in a coconut. It’s also the kindest kill in the show’s history. “Just eat your snack, buddy,” she says before splattering the little guy. “Oh gosh, oh my word, I’m sorry, lord, have mercy.”
10. Osten versus Pelican Pete (Pearl Islands)
Not all of these Man vs. Nature moments have to be serious; sometimes, they’re just ridiculously funny. That’s certainly the case for this entry. The beaches of Survivor contain many scary creatures and animals, from snakes to spiders to sharks to… pelicans? Osten’s run-in with a pelican (nicknamed Pete by Ryan O) is so good that I’m disappointed Survivor hasn’t made an entire season theme off the back of it. “I don’t like animals, I’ve been bit by a couple of animals, and next thing that bites me dies,” warns Osten. We all know he’d have been running into the jungle had that pelican got any closer.
9. Russell Swan passes out (Samoa)
Jeff Probst once described this moment as the scariest he’s ever witnessed on the show, and it’s easy to see why. When Russell passes out mid-challenge, and blacks out, not once, but twice, it’s a real s**t hits the fan moment. When his body slumps over the table maze it’s a genuinely frightening scene, made even worse by the fact half the castaways, including Russell, are blindfolded. A combination of dehydration, starvation, heat, and pushing oneself to the limit, saw Russell in a real life or death situation had he not been immediately evacuated from the game.
8. Skupin kills a pig (The Australian Outback)
This scene is actually pretty disturbing, and even at the time, the show knew it—just listen to that ominous music. Skupin chasing down a pig before butchering it with a knife is undeniably memorable, if hard to watch. “It looks like a murder scene,” says Elisabeth when she turns a corner to see the bloody carnage. At one point, Skupin smears some of the pig’s blood on his face, a sign that something wasn’t quite right there even back then.
7. Kaoh Rong heat exhaustion (Kaoh Rong)
Russell Swan’s medical evacuation might have been the scariest Survivor moment until that point. However, it was topped in Kaoh Rong when one arduous challenge saw three separate players pass out due to heat exhaustion. With the sun beating down as the castaways dig in the sand for puzzle pieces, one-by-one, players begin to drop. First, Debbie falls, then Cydney, and worst of all, Caleb, who is in such a dire state, he has to be helicoptered out of the game. The chaos of seeing all the behind the scenes crew on camera made this a frightening but highly memorable moment.
6. Jacaré’s shelter burns to the ground (The Amazon)
Fire plays a massive part in Survivor; after all, fire represents your life. It can also be extremely devastating, as the castaways in The Amazon found out when their shelter was scorched to ashes. For some reason, Butch was stockpiling firewood like it was going out of business. And while away at a challenge, the campfire spread, burning the shelter and the tribe’s luxury items (including Jenna’s sorority jacket, Butch’s Believe In Yourself sign, and, worst of all, Rob’s magic 8-ball!). All of this brilliantly contrasted with Rob and Matt barbecuing hot dogs and burgers while on reward.
5. The Outback flood (Australian Outback)
It’s not just fire you have to watch out for on Survivor; water can be equally destructive, as the castaways in the Australian Outback found out first-hand when a flood washed through their camp. There’s an excellent shot of the water encroaching on the shelter and the tribe’s tin of rice floating down stream. Meanwhile, the castaways are stranded on the other side of the creek a few miles away. Then, in the pitch blackness of night, Keith and Tina cross the current in some mad Mission Impossible stunt to retrieve the tin of rice that is lodged beneath a branch. It’s a scary moment with a feel-good, unifying ending.
4. The ear-worm (Kaoh Rong)
This is some straight-up horror movie s**t. A worm crawls inside Jennifer’s ear in the middle of the night and decides to set up shop in there. “It’s disgusting hearing these little legs crawl around in your head,” she says as tears stream down her face. “It keeps getting deeper and deeper.” Then her ear starts bleeding! It’s like some kind of twisted torture method from a SAW film. Eventually, the little critter crawls out of its own accord, only to be greeted by Scot Pollard—I’m surprised it didn’t turn around and go back inside. Definitely one of the creepiest moments in Survivor history.
3. The cyclone evacuations (Millennials vs. Gen-X and David vs. Goliath)
There have been plenty of storms throughout Survivor history, but not until Millennials vs. Gen-X did we see an entire cast temporarily evacuated due to an incoming cyclone. And then it happened again just a couple years later in David vs. Goliath! Perhaps it was a message from the Survivor Gods to pick a different location from Fiji. It was wild seeing the storm approaching and then the chaos of collecting the tribemates, piling them onto boats, and shipping them to safety, only to return a couple of days later to utter devastation back at camp.
2. Skupin falls in the fire (Australian Outback)
Survivor‘s first-ever medical evacuation will always be remembered for just how shocking and terrifying it was. This wasn’t an infection or dehydration, both scary in their own right, but not as visually impactful as someone falling into a fire! That’s what happens to Skupin as he inhales too much smoke and passes out hands and face-first into the camp-fire. The screams are chilling, as is the panic on the faces of the other tribemates and crew who rush to help. Then there’s the graphic image of the skin melting from Skupin’s hands as he jumps into the nearby creek.
Given Skupin’s crimes that came to light in later years, you might now look at the fire as the hero of this story. And I’m sure that slaughtered pig was laughing somewhere. Regardless, the fire incident will forever be etched in the minds of Survivor fans.
1. Coach’s epic Exile adventure (Tocantins)
“Unbreakable, unbending, unyielding, immeasurable, immovable, invincible,” aka, the Coach Wade Story. The whole purpose of Exile Island was to push players to their physical limitations, and it definitely provided that in its many iterations. But nobody turned Exile into a full-scale movie epic in the same way Coach did in Tocantins. Set in the majestic orange dunes of the Brazilian highlands, Coach and his “dragon cane” set forth on a journey of self-discovery and self-imposed starvation.
The segment is beautifully shot, with these vast, sweeping shots of the dunes. But it’s also utterly absurd, as this is Coach in prime Coach 1.0 mode. “It’s gonna be like the Native Americans, my ancestors, who used to go out into the wilderness for 48 hours and commune with the creator of the universe, and they would become men,” he explains. “But I’m already a man, so this will just make me more of a man.” Nobody epitomizes Man vs. Nature more than Benjamin “Coach” Wade.
Honorable Mentions: Chet gets coral stuck in his foot (Micronesia), The Beauty tribe doesn’t understand how chickens work (Cagayan), Stephenie survives the night alone (Palau).