Beneath the Water’s Surface

By Doug Novinger | August 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: August 2021
Sitting in the water with snorkels
Beneath the Water’s Surface

We were eager to get down to the water, but a scattering of stinging nettle and poison ivy encouraged us to pick our way carefully. The song of a burbling riffle just out of sight lured us to a tumble of boulders that stepped down to a shallow pool. Warblers sang in the early summer foliage and a kingfisher chittered in the distance. Dragonflies with white-spotted wings and vibrantly colored damselflies flitted over a stand of water willow, and a turtle slipped from its basking log into the pool. As the stream came into full view, a smallmouth bass crashed into a school of minnows along a gravel bar, startling us.

Missouri streams and the unique environments surrounding them reach out to us with unlimited opportunity for observation, reflection, and recreation. Many of us have experienced streams as destinations for fishing, floating, birding, or just places to poke around and cool off on a hot summer day. However, there is a hidden world just out of sight beneath the water’s surface that calls out to be explored. Snorkeling is an easy, fun way to investigate the aquatic life in clear-flowing streams and adds another dimension to enjoying a wondrous resource.

One of our favorite family activities during summer is to gather a few simple items and escape the mid-Missouri heat by heading down to one of many MDC conservation areas that offer access to an Ozark stream. We spend the day exploring, doing a little wade fishing, and snorkeling. Kids are especially drawn to the adventure and mystery associated with streams, but anyone would be amazed by the abundance of species and interesting types of habitats that can only be fully appreciated by seeing them underwater.

Snorkeling is the only practical way to observe some critters in their natural setting and learn about their habitat preferences, feeding behaviors, and how they interact with each other and other species in the aquatic community. Snorkeling is a common technique used by researchers to gather information about aquatic organisms. However, it is in no way restricted to academic pursuits and is perhaps the most basic and easiest method to just see how life unfolds underwater.

Gear Up

In warmer water, snorkeling does not require much gear. In fact, you do not even need a snorkel — a tube that allows you to breath underwater — to get a glimpse of the diverse aquatic life and habitat that resides just beneath the water surface. However, you do need an adjustable face mask or goggles that fit your face well enough to establish a water-tight seal, but not so snug as to be uncomfortable. A snorkel and face mask will allow continuous underwater viewing with the option of brief, deeper dives if you have mastered clearing the snorkel when you surface. Look for snorkels that conveniently clip to the mask straps and have one-way valves to make it easier to clear water. Some options combine a face-covering mask with a built-in snorkel. It is a matter of preference which setup works better for you. Price and quality of masks and snorkels range widely, and you can find gear that is reliable for occasional use at minimal cost; however, in my experience, the cheapest versions usually do not perform well and may have poor fit, leaky seal, and weak or uncomfortable straps. It does not need to be complicated, but it is worth a few extra dollars, reading reviews, and consulting staff at a dive shop (if possible) where you can try on various styles to make a wise purchase, especially if you intend to snorkel more than a few times per season.

For snorkeling attire, a quick-dry, long- or short-sleeved shirt works well for protection from brushing against rough surfaces and reducing sun exposure, though any old shirt will do. If you frequently scrape against the stream bottom, your shirt will quickly develop persistent stains from the organic layer that coats most underwater surfaces, so you will unlikely be using that shirt for anything else. Some people may prefer long, quick-dry pants to protect their legs as well. Those also defend against the nettle and ivy you might encounter on your way down to the water. Water shoes or wading boots and neoprene socks, or even a pair of old tennis shoes, help guard feet from sharp objects. Waterproof sunscreen and, for some people, a head or neck covering are also important considerations.

Snorkeling in cooler water requires additional layers to hold in body warmth. Even moderately cool water (less than 70–75 degrees in my experience) will limit the length of time comfortably spent submerged without wearing a neoprene wetsuit. Wetsuits come in a variety of styles including one- or two-piece, partially to fully covering arms and legs, and different thicknesses (3 and 5 mm are common) to accommodate a range of temperature conditions. Neoprene hood, vest, gloves, and socks can be added to enhance insulation. Wetsuits are designed to allow water inside, and body heat creates a layer that keeps one quite warm except when bending movements occasionally allow a minor but shocking exchange of cold water down the back. For more extreme conditions, dry suits are available that have (ideally) watertight seals to keep one dry. However, these gears can be expensive, cumbersome, and are generally not necessary to enjoy snorkeling in the warmer water conditions that exist from late spring to early fall. They also add buoyancy, which may or may not be helpful depending on the habitat you intend to explore.

Finding the Right Water

Not every body of water is suited to snorkeling. Moderate to high water clarity and good water quality are important factors. Siltation from eroded soils can blanket the stream bottom, limiting aquatic life and reducing visibility by producing a cloud of suspended sediment when disturbed. Excessive nutrients lead to algal blooms that can also obscure the water column and stream bottom and create a biofilm at the surface that is not pleasant to snorkel through. High densities of livestock and poor animal and water management practices can enhance these problems. Some blue-green algae blooms that are more likely to occur in still waters and high levels of bacteria from animal wastes can pose a health risk to people and pets.

Fortunately, many of Missouri’s Ozark and Ozark border streams offer good to excellent snorkeling conditions, particularly during periods when they are stable and flowing at low to moderate levels. Clear waters and diverse habitats composed of relatively clean, rocky substrates allow for a view extending several yards in all directions. Elevated flows and habitats that are especially swift or have high amounts of debris can be dangerous even for strong swimmers and should be avoided. It’s hard to appreciate the many interesting things to see underwater when all your effort is focused on just hanging on.

Some lakes, where swimming is permitted, may also offer fun snorkeling opportunities. The lack of flow can make it challenging to escape the cloud of sediment that may be easily stirred up, but water clarity is generally good and swimming easy.

A Zen Moment

Before donning mask and snorkel, it helps to wet your face a bit to ensure a good seal with the mask. A few drops of anti-fog solution, available at dive shops or online stores, smeared on the inside of the mask’s face plate creates a clear coating that reduces fogging and keeps water drops from clinging on the glass. In a pinch, saliva works almost as well but is certainly less hygienic. Put the mask on and adjust the straps and orientation of the snorkel so that the components fit comfortably snug, neither too tight nor too loose. Ease into the water and prepare to be amazed.

Snorkeling in streams is best done by moving gradually from downstream to upstream. Move slowly, taking time to inspect the variety of habitats in front and to each side. Gently use hands and toes to propel yourself while minimally contacting the bottom or other structure. The method can resemble something between crawling and rock climbing. Occasionally, stop and wait to see what creatures emerge to investigate this large, new thing that has entered their domain. Also, look behind to see what fish are following, attracted by the opportunity to pluck tiny invertebrates that are set adrift by your activity. Do not be surprised if small sunfish dart in to nip at the hair on your arms or legs. They are harmless but can deliver a startling pinch. Simply resting on the stream bottom and observing the activities of life, movement of material, and reflecting on the way that life and habitat respond to the flowing environment and our influence on it can be a Zen moment.

Life Below the Surface

There are dozens of species of fish, crayfish, mussels, and other invertebrates that might be seen in a typical Ozark stream. During early spring, males of many fish species show off the brilliant array of colors they express when they establish spawning territories and court females. For instance, watching a multi-species group of colorful shiners interact around a gravel mound nest built by a hornyhead chub or seeing the chub piling small rocks to construct the nest, is an impressive sight. Longear sunfish males also build and aggressively defend spawning nest depressions as summer approaches. Their ornamentation can rival that of any tropical fish, and they are common throughout the Ozarks. If you are very lucky, you might happen across a mussel of the genus Lampsilis that is displaying a lure to attract fish that will host the mussel’s young, known as glochidia. The lure imitates small fish prey and entices predators like largemouth bass to try to eat the lure so that the mussel may release the glochidia which attach to the fish’s gills for a brief period of development (but do not harm the fish). Looking around and occasionally under some of the smaller cobble-sized rocks will reveal the homes of secretive darters, small catfish known as madtoms, crayfish, and a variety of other invertebrates that shelter from predators during daylight.

Exploring different kinds of habitats, with unique forms of depth and flow characteristics and structure, will lead to opportunities to discover different suites of species specialized to use those environments. A waterproof camera offers a great way to capture amazing photos and video of aquatic life. Just like the terrestrial mantra to take only pictures and leave only footprints, it is important to interact with the underwater world responsibly and not significantly disturb habitat by turning large rocks, damaging spawning nests, or removing mussels from the stream bottom substrates where they are lodged. I have always been amazed by the way that fish often respond with apparent curiosity to a snorkeler that is at rest or moving slowly. Even large smallmouth bass sometimes approach closely to inspect the large but non-threatening intruder and perhaps make a meal of one of the many smaller fish that are following and become too careless.

Snorkeling is a truly unique way to explore, appreciate, and learn about the life that exists in our beautiful streams. Like birding and wildlife viewing, it is a mostly noninvasive activity that is easily accessible to people across a wide range of ages, interests, and capabilities, and can be pursued in streams associated with many MDC conservation areas. Children seem to especially love exposure to this secret world that is only revealed when one can see beneath the water’s surface. The activity is also easily combined with other fun time in and around the stream and strengthens a desire to understand and protect our precious aquatic resources. Get outdoors and give snorkeling a try this summer and see how it can become a new and exciting way to enjoy Missouri streams.


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