1000 feet above sea level, a Georgia schoolkid finds a snorkeler’s paradise in the Conasauga River
(see details for accessing this location at the end of this article)
Our newly released short film, “A Deeper Creek,” follows a group of middle-schoolers from the lowlands of Georgia up into the southern Appalachian mountains, where they find an aquatic adventure in a North American freshwater biodiversity hotspot. Our hope in this film—and in much of our mission-driven work—is to help more people recognize and experience their backyard waters as wonders of watchable wildlife and photographic opportunity.
Fresh water represents less than one percent of the Earth’s diveable water, yet harbors roughly one-third of the planet’s fish species. And as lakes, rivers, and wetlands gain more interest from a growing community of divers and photographers, these waters can prove discouraging and difficult to access for newcomers. Here, we offer a few guidelines for safely finding good freshwater opportunities, with a slight bias toward rivers, where the majority of freshwater fish diversity can be found.
Knowing the Freshwater Life
So what underwater photographic subjects can be found in your backyard waters? For North America, the recently revised Peterson Field Guide to North American Freshwater Fishes is an indispensible reference to get to know the fishes. You can also find a helpful online community of “fishheads” in the North American Native Fishes Association. There are also many helpful “Fishes of…” books for U.S. states, which can have detailed life history and location information for species. Just like any natural history photography, the more you know about your subjects, the more effective you’ll be at capturing their beauty and behaviors.
Beyond fishes, there are diverse amphibians and aquatic reptiles, about which many good regional and local guides have been written, and the ultra-diverse invertebrates (insects, crustaceans, mollusks), which you can get a handle on through the Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America. Contacting your local state or park fish biologists can also be a great way to find good access points and know what species to look for.
A group of striped shiners in spawning colors congregates over clean gravels in a swift stream riffle, Tennessee River Basin
Rough-skinned newts untangle themselves from a “mating ball” in a small forest pond, Columbia River Basin
As a rule, fishes are generally more colorful, territorial, and interactive near their spawning time. By carefully finding and photographing fish during these times, you can capture some of their most colorful moments and interesting behaviors. Refer to the Peterson Field Guide to identify these opportunities.
Deep pools in rivers can be inviting and can hold larger fish, but don’t overlook the flowing runs and shallow riffles, which are teeming with life and provide more interesting current and streambed environments for split-shot photography. The small, cryptic fish and invertebrates that use these habitats are easy to miss, so slowing down and visually scanning the nooks and crannies can help to spot your subjects. If you look downstream of you in swifter currents, you’ll often find a photogenic group of minnows or trout happily feeding on the bits of food you’ve dislodged from the streambed.
A spawning pair of tangerine darters (brightly colored male above) deposits eggs in streambed gravels, Tennessee River Basin
Equipment for Freshwater Photography
Many good freshwater photography opportunities can be had in open-water environments in deep lakes, but some of the best opportunities are found in shallow streams. These waters often have swift currents, and tight and rocky underwater spaces, and can require lots of hiking or wading to get to. The less gear you have, the more nimble you can be in these environments.
In shallower streams and rivers, snorkeling is usually a better option than diving, and wading boots can be more useful than fins. The same logic applies to your underwater camera setup: smaller housings with fewer bulky components can be much more wieldy and sneaky in these environments.
Many of the best freshwater diving opportunities are in clear mountain streams and lakes, which are invariably cold. Thicker 5–7mm wetsuits are the rule, and also provide some helpful resistance to abrasive rocks and gravels. For the motionless work of underwater photography, drysuits (e.g., OS Systems, USIA) can be useful, and some manufacturers make dedicated river snorkeling suits that hold up well to abrasive, rocky streambeds.
Composing split shots is easier in shallow water, where you can steady yourself and brace your shots, Mobile River Basin
Freshwater Photography Approaches
Current is the defining force in rivers and streams, and can be easy to underestimate. Use extra caution in areas of swift and turbulent currents, and always dive with a buddy. Drifting freely downstream—however tempting—can be dangerous and difficult to control. Instead, move against the current as if you were an underwater rock climber. Working upstream is not only safer, but a more effective way to sneak up on fish, which are generally facing upstream themselves. Positive buoyancy, via wetsuit or life jacket, is good safety precaution in most situations.
Many of the safety rules and rescue approaches used in whitewater rafting and paddling apply to snorkeling and diving, so whitewater boating experience can be very helpful to ensure safety. Taking a guided whitewater trip or diving with an experienced boater is a good way to learn river safety, and canoeing or kayaking can be a great way to access dive and snorkel spots on rivers and lakes. The American Whitewater Association (AWA) and the American Canoe Association (ACA) have great safety resources, and we will only say here that your primary safety goal is to avoid areas of overpowering currents, especially where they push against boulders, banks, logs, and other objects that you don’t want to be pinned against or entrapped in. Check out the ACA’s safety and rescue courses.
Carefully planting your camera on the streambed can help to steady your shots and anchor yourself in swift currents
Finding underwater habitat features is a great way to find fish, like this rock bass using a log for cover, Great Lakes Region
We All Dive Downstream
Diving in freshwater requires a bit of a watershed sensibility. Unfortunately, many waters that are influenced by urban or heavy agricultural runoff pose significant safety risks, not to mention water clarity issues and impoverished biological communities. Knowing a watershed and its land uses can help you identify areas to avoid or to get upstream of.
Pubic and protected lands, like National and State Forests and Parks, often have the least intensive land uses, and they are commonly found in upland headwaters that have the clearest water and fewest upstream risks. These are often the safest and best-suited locations for freshwater underwater photography. Learn more about your local watersheds through the EPA website.
Low and Clear
Even “crystal clear” mountain streams can be surprisingly turbid when you stick your face in them. Watching the rain and streamflow conditions in rivers and the annual mixing and algal bloom patterns in lakes can help you find the clearest diving windows. In rivers and streams, low water seasons are often the best for clarity. Groundwater spring inputs can be great places to find dependably clear water, even after a rainstorm. Look up your local river levels through the USGS river gauges.
Using the streambed to carefully move and anchor yourself against currents is an effective way to move in rivers and lakes—and kicks up less silt and debris than using fins
Freshwater Photography Etiquette
Share the Water
Be careful in areas with anglers, boaters, and other water users, and give them plenty of space. A dive flag or a buddy can be helpful to make sure others see you. Be cautious of the fishing hooks, lines, bottles and cans that you will inevitably encounter even in the most pristine freshwater habitats.
Spare the Habitat
Just like coral reefs, streambeds and lakebeds provide the cover and nesting habitat for their inhabitants, and are sensitive to disturbance. Avoid the temptation to flip over rocks or logs, or otherwise disturb habitat. Freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to invasions of nonnative species, and many invertebrate and algal species can be transferred through damp neoprene and other soaked gear. Make sure to clean and dry out all your gear between trips, and use a 1–2 percent bleach in water solution to clean and disinfect your gear.
Freshwater ecosystems may appear strikingly bare in comparison to a tropical coral reef—but they flourish with biodiversity that can be negatively impacted by poor photography etiquette.
Be a Water Steward
Freshwater ecosystems are among the most imperiled on the planet, and they need all the help they can get. In addition to doing no harm, try to find ways to make your outings serve the freshwater conservation community. By reaching out to your local watershed or lake association, you might learn of species or issues they need images of, and you may be able to help them in their education and advocacy. You might even be able to start a citizen snorkeling program, like that featured in our “A Deeper Creek” film!
CASE STUDY: The Conasauga River “Snorkel Hole”
The Conasauga River is a beautiful Southern Appalachian river at the headwaters of the Coosa watershed and greater Mobile basin that’s great for late-spring through late-summer snorkeling. Managed by the Cherokee National Forest, this access point has very light land use upstream, clean water, a silt-free streambed, and a vibrant aquatic community. At the parking lot, you’ll find a helpful interpretive sign (designed by snorkel guide, Casper Cox), with tips and fish identification.
Safety: Check the USGS stream flow gauge to see how high the river is relative to norms, and if there’s been a recent rain event. The runs and riffles upstream of the parking lot are very safe and approachable at normal summer stream-flows, while there are jagged bedrock rapids downstream of the parking lot that beginners should avoid. A 5mm or thicker wetsuit is helpful for longer dives in the summer.
Pack plenty of food and water, since you’ll be an hour’s drive from supplies, and watch the forecast and skies. “Pop-up” thunderstorms are common in Southern Appalachia, and can pose lightning risks and dirt road disasters, not to mention muddy water.
One of 40-plus species of fish that can be seen at the Conasauga River “Snorkel Hole,” a male Alabama shiner in spawning colors displays the spiky tubercles it uses for fighting and mating, Mobile River Basin
Directions: Take I-75 to Cleveland, Tennessee, exit #20 (Cleveland bypass). Take the bypass 6.5 miles to US-64 east (towards Ocoee); follow US-64 8 miles to Hwy 411. Turn right (south) onto US-411. Travel 6.7 miles on US-411 and turn left onto TN-313 at the Marathon gas station (Ladd Springs Road, which becomes Willis Springs Road). Travel 4 miles until the pavement ends, then bear right on the gravel road, Forest Service Road 221 (Pea Vine/Sheeds Creek Road). Continue for 4.7 miles as the road climbs and winds until you reach the Conasauga River Trail Head (#61) parking lot. Turn right into the parking area. Travel time from Chattanooga is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Local Conservation Group: The Conasauga River Alliance works to bring conservation and awareness to river issues in this area, and hosts several snorkel tours of their own. As educators and conservationists, they can put your best photos to good use toward their cause.
Plan Your Adventure >