Snorkeling provides a close view of aquatic life

As summer temperatures rise, spring-fed streams are great places to stay cool. With just a face mask, a snorkel and an old pair of sneakers, you can observe aquatic life on its own terms — under water. Snorkeling opens a whole new world to the curious naturalist.

Snorkeling is usually associated with tropical locations. While cruising the Galapagos Islands back in June, I had several opportunities to snorkel in surprising cool equatorial waters. Chilly currents from the South Pole sweep past the islands so that even the endemic Galapagos penguin finds the area hospitable.

The view from ship to shore is one of a vast, seemingly sterile seascape. But life teems beneath the surface. A snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit are all it took to appreciate the biodiversity that inhabits the coastal waters of the Galapagos.

Just enjoy it

There were simply too many colorful fish to try to identify — thousands of individuals and hundreds of species. So I just enjoyed the visual spectacle. I felt like a neophyte birder must feel on a mid-May morning in a migratory hot spot.

However, it was under water encounters with sea lions and green sea turtles that made the most lasting impressions. Sea lions shot past like giant silver bullets. Occasionally one would stop to check out the snorkelers — sometimes face to face.

One even said hello by bumping one diver’s face mask.

But it was a close encounter with a green sea turtle that everyone hoped for. My wife and I came upon one grazing peacefully in about 6 feet of water. We joined a group of four other snorkelers and watched from above.

June Bernard returned from one snorkeling adventure almost speechless. She had spent five minutes swimming above a very large sea turtle, matching it stroke for stroke. She used words like “magical” and “amazing” to describe the experience.

Even two weeks after we returned, she told me, “I’m still floating on cloud nine. I’ll never forget that day.”

At home

Snorkeling can be just as much fun here at home. Regardless where you snorkel, however, make safety the primary concern. Never snorkel alone. Stay in shallow water. And never explore under large rocks or submerged logs.

Begin by walking a length of stream. Notice it consists of two parts: Slowly moving pools and rapidly flowing riffles. Pools may be as small as a dish pan or as large as a swimming pool. Sometimes they cut under the stream bank or into the roots of giant sycamore trees. Avoid these areas unless you’re an experience snorkeler and a strong swimmer.

Find an inviting pool, knee to waist deep, and put on a mask and snorkel, float face down, and watch. Within minutes, fish approach. They may seem curious. Drop a few wriggling earthworms to the bottom of a pool to trigger a feeding frenzy.

By observing foraging behavior, anglers can learn the kinds of prey movements that attract attention. Then search the darker parts of the pool. Bigger fish, such as bass or trout, seek refuge under lips of large rocks, in a tangle of roots, or under floating logs.

Just watch

For safety’s sake, don’t dive into these deeper spots, just watch from the edge. Even more interesting are the smaller fish found in the shallow, rapidly flowing riffles. This is the “gurgling” part of the stream.

Here, where the flow rate can be so rapid it seems every living thing should be swept away, is where the fascinating darters live. Lie down in a riffle, facing upstream, to view the darters.

Inch upstream and scan the rubble from side to side. Watch for small fish darting among the stones. Darters are suited to life in swift currents. Some position themselves on the upstream side of larger rocks where the current is significantly slower.

Others wedge themselves between the stones on a tripod consisting of the tail and both pelvic fins (the lower pair of fins just below the head). Still others bury all but their heads in fine sand or gravel. Masters of disguise, darters can be difficult to see.

When summertime heat gets unbearable, grab a mask and snorkel and try fish-watching for a cool diversion.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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