Freshwater escapades

Words and photographs by Matthew Sullivan

Eastern Hellbenders are the largest amphibian in North America.

They are the third largest on Earth, behind only the Chinese and Japanese giant salamanders. They require pristine, fast-flowing streams and are native to the Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States. Typically, they remain well camouflaged on the bottom and rely on their crypsis to avoid predation and to ambush prey.

Imagine my surprise then, when, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a huge salamander lunge up through the water column and rocket back to the rocky substrate. I knew immediately it was a hellbender and thankfully it remained in the open when it dove back to the bottom.

At first, I couldn’t understand what was happening. A lamprey was suctioned to the forehead of the hellbender. I started taking pictures despite not knowing what sort of situation I was looking at. After a few frames it dawned on me that the hellbender was actually attempting to eat the lamprey! Not the most delectable of prey items in my humble human opinion but, who am I to judge. The two appeared to be in a stalemate. The lamprey stuck fast to the salamander’s face, while also clamped tightly between its jaws.

For a minute or so, nothing happened. Suddenly the hellbender opened its mouth to bite down again and like lightning, the lamprey got sucked into the salamander’s cavernous mouth. To my amazement, it actually managed to sneak out the back of its gills and vanished into the river. It’s hard to anthropomorphize a salamander, but if one could look dejected, this one did. I exited the water onto the back lawn of a popular bar and grille with a gigantic smile on my face and a proverbial mob of restaurant goers eagerly approached and asked what I could possibly be doing. Well, looking for giant slimy salamanders of course!

freshwater hellbender

I have been a diver for 17 years now, I started when I was ten, but it is only in the past three years that I’ve started paying any sort of attention to freshwater ecosystems. They’re easily accessible in most places, yet we often just fly over them or drive past them on the way to more exotic locales. I have been as guilty as the rest. Then a trip to Alaska changed everything. I travelled there with small group intent on photographing salmon sharks and jellyfish blooms, but some nasty Alaskan weather and unseasonably cold ocean temperatures kept both the sharks and the jellyfish away and forced us to come up with an alternative plan to salvage our time. We decided to explore a salmon stream a few times, and I immediately fell in love with salmon.

Where I live in the eastern United States, salmon are relatively scarce, and in the few places they occur in large numbers, I have yet to figure out a way to photograph them underwater. The lack of salmon and my burgeoning interest in freshwater photography, forced me to learn far more about the freshwater ecosystems of the eastern US and specifically the Appalachian Mountains.

The Appalachians are a biodiversity hotspot both above and below the water. This region specifically caught my attention after seeing several photographers, who I now call friends, posting pictures each spring of fish that rival tropical reefs in terms of colour and variety. Not only did I see an opportunity to witness some spectacular spawning scenarios, but also to capture some unique images, and draw attention to an often-overlooked genre of wildlife and ecosystem. We take our freshwater ecosystems for granted. Just drive the edge of countless creeks and rivers in any even remotely accessible place on Earth, and no doubt there will be trash strewn along the banks, hanging from the trees, and tossed carelessly into the water. Perhaps if people were more aware of the spectacular creatures that they’re impacting by doing so, they’d at least think twice before tossing that plastic bag or beer can out of the car window.

freshwater ecosystems USA

Each spring I had the intention to make the trip south to the epicentre of freshwater fish biodiversity in the southern Appalachian, but I just never made it happen. So, in early 2020 when my friend Andrew Zimmerman, an aquatic biologist for Environmental Inc, invited me down to the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee, for a few days of underwater shooting during peak spawning season for many fish species, I jumped at the chance.

Andrew and I planned to spend a few days focusing on River Chub mounds and the species that congregate on the mounds to breed. The male chubs build big mounds out of river rocks and pebbles that function as a nest where the females lay their eggs. The nicer the nest, the more appealing to female chubs.

The chubs are fascinating to watch as they build their mounds. The males work constantly and tirelessly swimming the area around his chosen patch, carefully inspecting every stone before selecting the perfect one, picking it up in his mouth, and swimming it back to his mound where he spits it out. He’ll repeat this process hundreds, if not thousands of times, during the short breeding window.

As fun as the chubs are for us photographers, it is really the species of shiners that are the big draw. Depending on where you are in the Appalachian chain, depends on what type of shiner frequents the chub mounds. In the areas we were exploring it was mostly saffron and Tennessee shiners. Usually these fish are drab minnows, but for a very brief period of time each year, they fire up into spectacular reds and yellows and school over the chub mounds. The spawning is triggered by water levels and extremely specific water temperatures. While the shiners may congregate on a mound, they won’t spawn if the water is too cold. One to two degrees makes an enormous difference.

River Chub freshwater

We spent our days bouncing around the river (I’m avoiding giving location specifics as the habitat is sensitive) looking for mounds and photographing as many as we could. Admittedly I was ill prepared for the trip, having never done something quite like this before. Although the water in most places is shallow, rarely more than 4-5 feet deep at the most, with a drysuit and no weights, I was like a bobber in the fast-flowing water and spent most of my time struggling to stay in one spot. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll have significantly more weight. Investing in a full scuba rig would also greatly benefit my photography, as I wouldn’t have to breath hold – which I’m terrible at – and would be able to anchor myself in one spot to compose and light the scenes in a much more aesthetic way.

The Cherokee National Forest, while protected land, faces many of the same threats as other natural systems across our planet. Climate change, pollution, habitat destruction are all putting the forest and its aquatic inhabitants at risk. Many of the species here exist nowhere else and once they’re gone from the region, they’re gone for good. It has become clichéd but perhaps with a bit of knowledge about this remarkable ecosystem, we can do a better job of protecting for and caring about it.