River Snorkeling and how Connection Inspires Action

We are losing freshwater biodiversity at an alarming rate, and while the specific reasons vary with geography, socio economics and ecology, over the past 15 years I have found a lack of awareness of freshwater life as a common underlying cause. The following stories of snorkeling in three vastly different locations with three different kinds of migratory fish help illustrate the potential role snorkeling can play in World Fish Migration Day activities, to help raise awareness of these amazing creatures. 


As soon as I submerged, I was surrounded by life. Thousands of herring surged past me, pushing for the falls just upstream, the limit of their migration. These were river herring, a fish in serious decline here in the mid-Atlantic region of the US, largely because of migration blockages like dams and over fishing. Being in the water with the herring revealed them to be more than “just” fish. They are beings, living entities with a purpose, as much of a purpose as I have. I laid in the creek beached on the bedrock and looked into the dark eye of each herring that came close. The black discs on silver saucers, on first glance, looked empty. But there was a knowing there, a knowledge in those black eyes. A perception of the world vastly different from mine, something I couldn’t fully discern, or understand, but I wanted to.  

Their bodies were silver, indigo, gold and every combination of shades in between. Their colors changed and reflected the ambient lighting and background so that I couldn’t pin a single-color label on them. They were too dynamic to portray with one descriptor. These fish embody beauty and raw power and singleness of purpose. How does nature construct such loveliness? And why? If this reproductive thing is entirely utilitarian, simply to procreate the species, why the investment in beauty?

When most people think of snorkeling they think of tropical reefs, not temperate streams. But I have found beauty, diversity and natural drama in our everyday streams that rivals what I have witnessed on reefs in the coral triangle. These herring are a great example. Watching their migration from the surface inspires awe. Getting in the water with them so that I can feel the energy and chaos they bring to the stream as they spawn by the thousands is unlike anything else I have experienced underwater. Snorkeling links me to these herring in profound, emotional ways. This deep connection is the foundation to protecting these amazing creatures. When we view the stream from the perspective of its inhabitants, our whole awareness changes.  

Shrimp—Snorkeling Tips

The rivers that steeply descend from the peak of El Yunque in Puerto Rico, Rio Sabana, Mameyes, Espiritu Santo and others, define the place and landscape. These streams are beautiful, dynamic threads of water that cascade through thick, verdant rainforest jungle. They are appreciated for the scenery they provide to this already striking countryside, more than they are appreciated for their own sakes. Ecotour companies bring busloads of tourists to view the rivers from the surface as they weave their way down the mountain. The life they contain, all migratory, is incredible. The underwater world of El Yunque rivers is just as magnificent as the forest, and largely ignored.  

I floated into a pool defined by car sized boulders on each end. Shrimp extended frilly fans on the tips of their legs into the water and systematically licked them off in order as they captured floating particles. The ends of their legs, where they transition to fans, were red and blue, like painted finger nails. Gold lined salpiche shrimp padded the rocks with feather duster feet and fed on the stuff that stuck. Other salpiche wafted through the water like translucent pixies. A chestnut brown freshwater crab was less tolerant of my presence and ran sideways across the bottom for the shelter of a rock overhang. I was too focused on the crab to notice the goby until I was face to face with him. These are called waterfall fish because of their ability to scale waterfalls, and this male glowed green turquoise. He let the current bend his slinky body around the river bottom rocks while he held his head high off the cobble at me, as if to say this was his turf, “back off”. 

This waterfall fish is another migratory species. They use their sucker mouths and modified pectoral and anal fins to scale waterfalls as they return from the estuary to the mountainous freshwater streams of El Yunque.  While the shrimp, gobies and 8 other freshwater fish that are endemic to Puerto Rico are able to climb waterfalls, they are not able to make it over human made dams. Each of the 9 freshwater fish species native to Puerto Rico are imperiled, because of these migration route blockages. 

I floated around this pool as weightless salpiche shrimp apparitions twirled through the water. I watched the large claws of a macrobrachiid shrimp strike out from under a rock at the smaller shrimp species, and I marveled at the iridescent prisms on the filtering fans of spinning basket shrimp. Big mouth sleepers blended in with the bottom while black and white checker boarded awaous banana gobies, with red tipped dorsal fins, sucked algae from bedrock nooks. Schools of mountain mullet, hundreds thick, plied through the center of the pool, their clean silver sides dimpled with heavy black scale lines. An eel hunted along the bottom. Puerto Rico is Isla Del Encanto. This is Rio Del Encanto. The river of enchantment. Enchanted life, migratory life, that creates an enchanted thrill. All of this is accessible to everyone. Another beauty of river snorkeling is that it is accessible and safe. 

Every one of the tourists on a rainforest tour who came to the edge of Rio Mameyes could have experienced this underwater festival with the addition of a simple dive mask and snorkel, inexpensive equipment that is simple to use. Safety obviously is paramount, and water can be dangerous. The ideal snorkel location has shallow, relatively clear water with minimal current and no hazards such as strainers.  Even shallow water can be hazardous. For example, rivers on El Yunque flash flood. It could be sunny where you are but down pouring further up the mountain. Pay attention to river conditions and be aware of the surroundings. Stay away from potentially polluted water, but don’t dismiss your local stream. Doniphan Creek in Missouri exemplifies this. 

Dace—There Is Much More Than What Meets the Eye at First

The stream before me looked dilapidated.  Pipes were exposed that carried God knows what - sewage likely, and they were possibly leaking into the creek. The poor little stream took runoff directly from streets and parking lots, runoff loaded with oil and gas from our engines, heavy metals from our brakes, fertilizers and herbicides from our yards.  Blue plastic wrappers and white grocery bags were plastered to the willows that snagged them in a frozen downstream point. The creek was more gravel bar than water and it looked like it is rearranged by high flows regularly. It looked like snorkeling this little stream, that ran behind the Sonic in Doniphan would be a waste of time. But this region, the Ozarks, is known for abundantly diverse and beautiful freshwater life so I squeezed into my drysuit, donned my mask, submerged, and hoped this wasn’t a poor choice.

Brilliant life instantly came into focus.  The black bands on the sides of redbelly dace made them look like flights of darts shooting through the water in perfect formation.  The iridescent lines on shiners glowed fluorescent green and pink when the right light hit them. A large school of stonerollers laid on the bottom of a deeper hole, beneath a tree root mass that fell in when the undercut bank collapsed. They were blinged out and bedazzled with white studs that covered their tan bodies. These studs are tubercles, grown by males in the spring.  Part of the mate selection process we think, though we aren’t exactly sure. Mysteries abound, even in common places. Their pectoral fins, the ones in the front, were banded white, tan and orange and looked red where they joined the body. They are beautiful fish and are rarely noticed as they spend their time on the bottom grazing algae off rocks.  A long ear sunfish, with brilliant turquoise lightning bolts on his face, blood orange fins and speckled orange, aqua, and tan body, hovered above the stonerollers, under the protection of the exposed tree roots, just out of the current waiting on food to be delivered.  

And then the male rainbow darters emerged from hiding and stood out from the olive drab background, like orange, turquoise, purple, red and cream neon lights. They initially took a few hops away from me, the way astronauts hop on the moon. But then they realized that I was in their turf and came back to challenge my presence.  Finally, they figured I wasn’t competing for their place or females and resumed fending off other males for the right to court and breed. 

These rainbow darters were flamboyant little rascals with a pugnacious attitude.   Their body posture said I can do what I want, when I want, how I want. A male bounced out from his protected crevasse and came just about nose to nose with me. He held his head high off the bottom on faint purple pectoral fins. Another male came into this one’s territory and was succinctly escorted out.  All of these beings are much more than fish, much more than beauty.  They are complex in ways we can’t comprehend, and the rudimentary behaviors I could interpret are just the start to trying to understand their world. 

The creek hid a brilliant mosaic of living color from plain sight. And the movement of this mosaic is also hidden. All of these fish migrate. They move through the river system. Some further than others, and none as far as some of the better known longer distance migrants like shad or salmon. But all of these fish need streams unobstructed by dams in order to flourish.

I got out of the river energized, satisfied and felt fully alive.  There are things to discover right under our noses. The life I witnessed is not new to science but it is new to me. And the interactions and behaviors of these beings are often new knowledge. Many of the behaviors of our freshwater species, even some of the most common, are yet to be documented.

So, the next time you have the opportunity to really look at the rundown little stream that flows through your town, and especially before you spray the weeds in your ditch, think about the unknown and unexpected intricacy and beauty that tiny creek may contain, and the effect you might have on it.  Think about all that life that was hidden within this beat up little stream that runs behind the Sonic.  Unknown and unexpected, and wildly common.  All it takes is a mask and snorkel to reveal a whole new world that deserves our attention, care, concern and connection. 

We are losing species from freshwater ecosystems faster than we are losing species from any other ecosystem on the planet. We are at a critical juncture, and we don’t have time to waste to arrest the significant decline in freshwater biodiversity. The recently published Living Planet Index for Migratory Fish from the World Fish Migration Foundation found that monitored populations of migratory freshwater fish have declined 76% from 1970 to 2016. This is an especially troubling finding. 

People don’t know the life we are losing from our rivers and streams. They don’t know the beauty, intelligence, abundance and diversity contained in our rivers and streams, and how we lose that when swimways are blocked.  These creatures are still objects to most, things to be counted or caught and eaten. But when we snorkel with them they become subjects, beings we share this planet with. 

We need to use every tool available to educate and advocate for migratory fish. River snorkeling connects people to freshwater life in profound ways, and could be an excellent World Fish Migration Day activity.  When we snorkel with fish we see them as thinking beautiful life that needs to be protected. We form connections with them and those connections could lead to action. 


BIO: Keith Williams is a freshwater underwater naturalist, photographer, educator, lecturer and writer. He has snorkeled rivers and streams extensively across North America, in Puerto Rico and China. His latest book, Snorkeling Rivers and Streams, An Aquatic Guide to Underwater Discovery and Adventure was published in March 2020. Contact: keith@freshwaterjourneys.com