Life Under the Surface

This week’s blog was written by Josh T., a Gobblers alumni. Josh grew up in the outdoors and is surrounded by people who have a great appreciation for nature. Josh enjoys hunting, fishing, and gathering wild food any time he gets the chance. In the future, Josh is looking to pursue a career in aquatic biology. He grew up on the Allegheny River and is fascinated by its great diversity of life both above and below the water.

This past weekend it was too hot to be out in the sun all day. Why not take to the water with your goggles and snorkel? You might be surprised by what you see. The Allegheny River has good water quality and is a very biologically diverse river. It is home to more than 80 species of fish, 30 species of mussels, and a couple dozen amphibian and reptile species.

An Allegheny river Longhead Darter

In the past, the river was threatened by pollution. Oil wells, factories, tanneries, and refineries dumped all their waste into the river during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today the river has recovered due to regulations including the Clean Water Act, the Wild and Scenic River Act, and the help of many conservation organizations that organize trash pickups and habitat improvement projects along the whole length of the river.

Josh snorkeling in the Allegheny river

I spent around an hour snorkeling, observing life under the surface. In that time I saw around 10 species of fish including 6 species of darters, I also saw many species of freshwater mussels. Mussels are an indicator species, meaning that if they are present the ecosystem must be healthy. They need good water and good habitat to survive and for this reason, many species are endangered or extirpated from much of their range.

An Allegheny river Striped Shiner

To me snorkeling isn’t just about getting in the water, it’s about what you see under the surface. The fish aren’t scared of you, it’s like stepping into their world, swimming with the fish through the underwater forests of aquatic plants watching Streamline Chubs and Striped Shiners constantly swimming mere inches from your face. Then there’s the colorful darters who stick to the bottom, moving only to snatch a mayfly crawling by. The most abundant darter in the river is the Longhead Darter, which just 20 years ago was on the state-endangered species. Next I spot a few crayfish, one hanging on to the vegetation, probably foraging for snails, another swims to safety under a rock. It is possible to follow one fish around for minutes on end watching it feed and observe how it interacts with its environment. In my opinion one of the best ways to really get to know a stream or river is to get under the surface and see what’s going on.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.