“Clamped tightly in the jaws of hellbender, a northern water snake struggles to fight free from its grasp. The snake put up quite a fight and was soon able to escape from this otherworldly scene, avoiding becoming the giant salamander’s next meal. Over the last ten years, I’ve had the great privilege to spend a lot of time underwater exploring the aquatic homes of hellbenders. However, even after all this time I feel like I’ve only been able to document a few photographs that that truly demonstrate their unique and mysterious demeanor.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

“Exploring the strange and wild world of hellbenders is nothing short of science fiction,” David Herasimtschuk, a conservation photographer specializing in freshwater environments, says. These ancient salamanders, whose presence in mountain streams dates back more than 160 million years, can grow to more than two feet long—though their wrinkled skin does a good job of blending in with their surroundings. The untrained eye might, at first, mistake a hellbender for a large rock, but Herasimtschuk’s underwater photography reveals their astonishing beauty. 

“The hellbender salamander is one of the most bizarre animals found on this planet,” the photographer says. “These unusual characteristics make this living fossil one of the most beautiful and important river creatures you will ever see.” 

But hellbenders are in trouble. These animals breathe through their wrinkly skin, so they’re heavily dependent on water quality; when that water quality suffers—due to agricultural activity, pollution, and harmful chemicals—the hellbenders do too. Researchers have found that hellbender populations have been dropping since the 1980s. 

As a child, Herasimtschuk fell in love with freshwater ecosystems while growing up near Cache la Poudre River in Colorado, where he spent countless hours observing the toads. For more than a decade now, Herasimtschuk has worked with Freshwaters Illustrated, a nonprofit raising awareness about aquatic environments. In that time, he’s come face-to-face with countless fish and amphibians across the continent. 

Once, while underwater in Tennessee’s Tellico River, Herasimtschuk discovered a hellbender clasping a snake in its jaws. The snake escaped, and the moment left the photographer with a renewed sense of awe and wonder. “Incredible worlds that can be found right beneath the surface of our our rivers and streams,” he explains. “Often forgotten, these environments harbor creatures beyond our imagination, with many of them occurring right in our own backyards.” 

We asked Herasimtschuk to tell us more about his underwater photography, his work on behalf of freshwater ecosystems, the threats our rivers are facing, and what can be done to help. 

“A school of humpback chub swim below a small waterfall in Havasu creek. These Federally Threatened fish have been extirpated from most of their historic range in the Colorado River Basin. Due to large-scale population declines, this particular image was many years in the making. Working in collaboration with biologists from Grand Canyon National Park, the United States Geological Survey, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, it took numerous trips down the Grand Canyon and many miles of river snorkeling before I found a location where I could successfully document chub in the wild.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

You have a background in freshwater ecology. In what ways does this experience inform your work in underwater photography?

“I attended Colorado State University from 2002-2007 and studied Wildlife and Fishery Biology. During my time in college, I gained a much greater appreciation for freshwater and was introduced to the unique diversity of life that inhabited these threatened ecosystems. College was also the point where I picked up my first camera, and it wasn’t long after that that I really started to see the power of photography as a tool for creating awareness surrounding freshwater conservation. 

“But I also began to realize that there was very little documentation of freshwater life in its natural habitat. As a young aspiring photographer, I scoured the pages of wildlife photography books and magazines trying to learn and absorb as much as possible, yet as inspiring as that imagery was, very rarely did I find images that captured freshwater diversity the way I knew it to be.

“After college, I worked on a series of freshwater-related research projects but continued photography along the way. I was truly fortunate to get to travel, study, and photograph freshwater environments in many parts of the world. Through my work, I often saw a recurring theme. All communities have incredibly strong ties and values associated with freshwater, yet most never realize how unique and special these environments are from a diversity perspective. There is a huge disconnect between what lives in freshwater environments and what is perceived to live in them.

“Over the last fifteen years, I’ve been truly fortunate to spend a great deal of time photographing the freshwater life of our planet. The experience and knowledge I gained as a freshwater ecologist and researcher have helped me discover novel techniques for communicating the complexities and connections that occur within freshwater ecosystems, and how science communication can play a role in protecting them. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with many of the top freshwater scientists in the world.”

“Migrating back to the waters where they were born, a small school of Chinook salmon navigate up river in Oregon’s Coast Range. A truly inspiring story, these determined fish will swim a gauntlet of rapids, cascades and waterfalls before returning home and creating the next generation. Today, chinook numbers are a small fraction of what once was. In most rivers, seeing a small handful of fish return home is all that is left of this iconic fish.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated
“Two male Western toads try to grab hold of a female toad in attempt to mate with her. Each spring, hundreds of toads migrate to this spot to breed, and competition to find a mate can be fierce. These tough mountain toads emerge right as the snowpack and ice begin melting from the landscape and will congregate in large numbers in the warm and protective shallows of high elevation lakes to breed. These plump toad pool parties can often get pretty competitive with male toads awkwardly grabbing onto anything that moves, including photographers.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

What makes freshwater ecosystems unique? In what ways are they different from other marine environments?

“For much of the diversity inhabiting the earth, freshwater is essential for survival. The rivers, streams, wetlands, and lakes that shape the surface of our planet are the foundation of life as we know it. A true spectacle of biodiversity, freshwater hosts a surprising collage of colors, shapes, and behaviors, and supports one of the richest—yet little-known—pools of biodiversity found on the planet. 

“Life flourishes within these environments, which represent less than one percent of the Earth’s water but still harbor nearly half of all fish species worldwide. Much of this great aquatic diversity resides in the tropical regions of the world, with the most speciose waters occurring in the Amazon, Congo, and Mekong river basins. 

“There are also many unique assemblages of freshwater life that can be found right in our own backyards. In the southeastern US alone, nearly 500 species of fish inhabit the freshwater environments in the region. Arguably just as diverse as marine ecosystems, these aquatic worlds harbor thousands of species showcasing a teeming collection of life that few have ever seen or known.

“These unique aquatic species also play a critical part in our everyday lives. There are numerous freshwater organisms that play a critical role in cleaning water. From lamprey and beavers to mussels and shrimp, these important organisms spend part of their lives as mini-water treatment plants filtering water that eventually gets used by humans. 

“From clean water and food production to the core of our very well-being as humans, freshwater is beyond just a natural resource. It is vital to our very existence. As humans, our everyday lives are sustained by the behaviors and interactions of freshwater organisms and ecosystems. 

“Yet, because these processes and relationships occur in places and at scales rarely observed, our connection with freshwater biodiversity and the role it plays in nurturing our well-being often goes completely unnoticed.

“Currently, freshwater extinction rates exceed that of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems by double, yet these ecosystems receive very little attention from the media and in the decision-making process. As the movement to conserve rivers continues to gain momentum worldwide, recognizing the importance of native aquatic biodiversity is critical to protecting freshwater environments. 

“Just as we fight for free rivers and the removal of dams, we should also be fighting for the protection of our native species. Our failures to see the intrinsic and ecological values of native freshwater life have come at great cost to many species. In our quest to manage and manipulate freshwater ecosystems, we put economy and recreational values above ecological values, and we are now seeing the consequences.”

“The largest dam in the United States, and on the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead supply water to California, Arizona and Nevada. Extreme drought in the western US has caused Lake Mead to drop to record lows, resulting in numerous water restrictions, and cutting a portion of the Colorado River water supply to Arizona. The creation of this dam in 1936 had a large impact on the Colorado River Ecosystem, stopping the movement of migratory fish species, and blocking the flow of sediment and nutrients down river.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated
“A pulsating blaze of breeding saffron and Tennessee shiners engulf a male river chub as he tirelessly works to build his rock nest. One of the most unique fish found in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the craftsman-like river chub will pick up stones and carry them in his mouth, building a large gravel nest where female chubs will come to lay their eggs. These immaculate nests also attract other species of minnows looking for clean gravel to lay their eggs in. Many species, like saffron and Tennessee shiners (the orange fish), rely heavily on the chub’s nest building skills, taking advantage of these gravel nurseries for their young.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

When creating underwater photography for conservation, what ethical rules do you follow?

“Due to the complicated and consequential nature of freshwater storytelling, ethics are critical to accurately documenting and disseminating the information and imagery captured. I work directly with science and conservation partners to make sure all stories, photo essays, and educational materials produced, accurately represent the current research and understanding of freshwater science and conservation.

“I also strive to exercise the utmost caution and respect when photographing wildlife, and I place the well-being of the animal above all else. When working directly with Federally protected species, I rely on the guidance and regulations of agency partners and biologists to minimize the stress that might incur on the subject or sensitive habitats.

“Given all the manipulation that occurs with photos these days, I believe it’s extremely important to be fully transparent in captioning, providing editors and audiences information on exactly how images are made.”

“A group of male rough-skinned newts chase down a mating pair of newts in a small pond in Oregon’s Coast Range. These comical little guys are always great to see in such large numbers. Along with other salamanders and newts, they play a huge role in maintaining healthy forests and aquatic ecosystems. In some North American forests, salamanders and newts make up more biomass than any other group of vertebrates. This incredible group of amphibians is now facing the threat of disease.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

What steps do you take to ensure that you don’t harm especially vulnerable ecosystems while practicing underwater photography?

“Freshwater ecosystems are increasingly susceptible to a growing number of impacts, so it’s important to understand how our daily actions might affect an environment or species. One threat that often goes completely unnoticed within freshwater environments is disease. With more people entering outdoor spaces these days, there is an ever-growing threat of wildlife disease spreading into new locations and habitats, without anyone realizing the potential impact. 

“In what is often described as the most destructive wildlife disease, amphibian chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has had a disastrous impact on amphibian species and freshwater environments worldwide, yet very few even know of its existence. 

“Recent studies have shown that the decline of amphibians, as a result of a fungal pathogen, has caused the greatest loss of biodiversity from a disease ever recorded. The skin-eating fungus has spread to every continent where amphibians are found, and has caused the decline of 501 species of amphibian and resulted in the extinction of 90 species. 

“While it may seem hopeless to stop this silent killer, there are actions we can take in our everyday lives to slow the spread of wildlife disease and limit the movement of new pathogens.

“A couple ways everyone can help protect amphibians are listed below.

“These simple steps can have a huge impact on our local freshwater environments. Personally, I make sure to disinfect all my gear and equipment before I recreate or work in a new area. This is often as easy as applying a 10 percent bleach solution to the bottom of my shoes to make sure I’m not spreading any unwanted pathogens. These small steps are extremely important as new diseases show up each year. 

“Recently, researchers discovered a new fungal pathogen known as Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans or Bsal. The current spread of Bsal is a major threat to the world’s salamander diversity, in much the same way that amphibian chytrid fungus has devastated frog and toad numbers. 

“Bsal has decimated populations of salamanders in Europe, and biologists and agencies have recently taken protective measures and preparations for the potential spread of Bsal in North America, where it has not yet been detected. 

“There is now a serious need to raise awareness about Bsal’s threats and precautions. The consequences of Bsal invading North America, which supports some of the greatest salamander diversity on the planet, would be severe and irreversible, as it is known to be fatal to many species. 

“The unfortunate reality from many biologists I have spoken with is not if Bsal will spread to North America, but rather when. So it’s important to have a set of tools and a response plan for any scenario. Education is definitely the first line of defense. 

“This proactive approach has the ability to help inspire actions that people can take in their own everyday lives to help conserve these vital species. If more people are out there recreating responsibly, and helping to prevent the movement of Bsal the chances of it actually spreading are reduced.

“If Bsal does make it to North America, education and outreach will play a major role in preventing its spread. Many biologists worry that the disease might not be discovered right away, so the more people that are out keeping an eye out for salamanders, the greater chance we have to slow the spread and minimize the pathogen’s reach.”

Can you tell me a bit about Freshwaters Illustrated and the work they do?

“FI is a non-profit organization that uses film and photography to educate the public on a variety of freshwater topics. We strive to create imagery that has the power to not only capture the imagination of the public but also help to motivate a new discourse in the way we all view freshwater ecosystems. 

One of only a few organizations in the world that focus strictly on freshwater storytelling, FI’s devotion to celebrating the life below the surface has resulted in a newly cultivated awareness in the way many view the planet’s freshwater ecosystems. Our photos and films on enigmatic species, like Pacific Lamprey, freshwater shrimp, and salamanders have not only educated the public on the intrinsic and ecological values of these species but have also helped gain support for their protection and preservation of habitats.”

“Migrating up a small creek, a school of longnose gar take part in a journey that has been happening since the time of dinosaurs. Each spring, these incredible fish migrate up from large rivers and lakes into small streams where they will create the next generation of gar. Equipped with armored scales and hundreds of razor sharp teeth, these prehistoric predators have changed very little in the last 50 million years and have ancestry dating back to the late the Jurassic period. Spending time underwater with these graceful giants truly feels like going back in time.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

What are some of the most significant challenges facing our freshwater ecosystems, and what can we do to help? 

“As human populations continue to grow, freshwater environments are repeatedly altered from their wild nature to aid the rising demands of a changing world. Numerous deleterious threats, including water extractions, pollution, invasive species, habitat destruction, and the constant proliferation of dams, continue to degrade freshwater ecosystems. It’s been estimated that wetland habitat has decreased by almost 70%, and many of the planet’s iconic freshwater environments have suffered tremendously from these impacts. 

“The conflict between freshwater management and environmental health is also becoming a serious threat to the state of freshwater biodiversity worldwide. Populations of freshwater vertebrates have declined by over 80 percent since 1970, with almost 1/3 of all freshwater fish species facing extinction. 

“As freshwater environments are manipulated for human use, the environmental problems often associated with impacts, like water regulation, habitat alteration, and pollution, are often overlooked. The anthropogenic burden placed on many of these ecosystems comes at huge costs to the life that resides there, and with very few exploring freshwater from an aquatic perspective, it’s often very difficult to effectively communicate what we stand to lose.

“There are numerous ways one can help protect freshwater environments. From volunteering with watershed councils and environmental organizations to practicing water conservation, engaging locally is a great way to learn more about where your water comes from and how you can help protect it. 

“Given the immediacy of many of these issues, it’s also important to engage civically. Voting for legislation that increases the protection of natural areas, wildlife, and clean water initiatives, not only benefits freshwater ecosystems but also the many species that rely on them, including humans.”

“Hidden beneath the iconic peaks of Colorado’s high country, a pair of Colorado River Cutthroat trout spawn in the gravels of a small creek. The alpinists of the trout world, these tough native fish are one of three remaining cutthroat subspecies found in Colorado. Cutthroat trout are one of the first freshwater fish species I attempted to photograph. It took years of location scouting and trial and error to capture them in their mountain habitat.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

Have you seen any of these challenges up-close while creating underwater photography for Freshwaters Illustrated?

“While I love sharing and celebrating the beauty of freshwater life and environments, a large part of my work also involves documenting how freshwater ecosystems are being impacted by the actions of humans. Many of the river systems I document have suffered tremendously from human management and overuse. One of the current projects that I’m working on with Freshwaters Illustrated in the Southwestern United States is a great example of the immensity of change that humans can introduce to a river system.

“Few rivers illustrate the complexities of our dependence on freshwater better than the Colorado River. Supplying water to seven states, two countries, and over 40 million people, the systematic overuse of this river and its tributaries has resulted in an unsustainable system that is beginning to fail. 

“Exacerbated by the worst drought in the region in 1,200 years, and the increasing impacts of climate change, there is an immediate demand for governments and water managers to find new ways of conserving and sharing water within the region. 

“While this important issue has seen a large amount of attention in recent years, much of the media coverage fails to communicate the extent of environmental impacts that have resulted from anthropogenic change within the watershed. With so much of the narrative focused on the control of water resources and the political discourse that has resulted, there is a growing need to recognize the ecological crisis facing the environments and biodiversity of the Colorado River Basin. 

“Historically, the Colorado River Basin supported one of the most unique assemblages of freshwater fish communities in the world. Of the 49 native freshwater fishes that inhabit the watershed, 42 are found nowhere else on the planet, resulting in some of the highest rates of endemism in North America. 

“Currently, the indigenous fish fauna of America’s desert Southwest represents one of the most imperiled groups of native fauna on the continent. Along with over a hundred years of large-scale water development projects, native freshwater species have been impacted by the introduction of over 70 non-native fish species within the watershed. Biologists now estimate that basin-wide, 95% of all fish found in the Colorado River are non-native.

“In Arizona alone, 20 out of the 36 native fish species that occur in the state are listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act, yet very few people have ever heard of or seen this unique assemblage of fish.

“With negotiations and decisions currently being made to address the future water management actions within the basin, it is vital that the public and policymakers have the tools and information necessary to make informed decisions about how freshwater environments are managed in the Southwest. The decisions these communities make in regard to water management will have considerable impacts on native biodiversity and ecosystems in the future.”

“Huddled beneath the boulders and bedrock below Oregon’s Willamette Falls, hundreds of Pacific lamprey take a short rest before attempting to scale the 40 foot falls on their journey to spawning grounds in the upper Willamette River system. For millions of years, these ancient fish have made this epic journey migrating from the rivers where they are born, out to the ocean and then back. Extremely important to their native river and ocean ecosystems, strong populations of Pacific Lamprey are crucial to the health of many rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, dams and pollutants have caused populations of this ancient fish species to crash throughout much of its native range.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated
“River snorkeler Casper Cox does his part to clean up his local waterway by collecting and removing large amounts of trash from the river. Casper spent weeks piling up trash he found while snorkeling the river, which he later bagged up and hauled out, as part of the Tennessee River Rescue Program. Trash is often a large problem, even in some of the most protected watersheds. Fortunately, there are many passionate individuals out there working to reverse this. From boaters and snorkelers to school kids and local businesses, thousands of people come out each year to clean up the rivers of Chattanooga.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

What moments have given you hope for the future of conservation? 

“One of the favorite parts of my job is connecting with and documenting the stories of passionate individuals who spend their lives working to conserve and protect freshwater life and environments. Their inspiring dedication is often a strong motivating force in my life and one of the reasons I work hard to share freshwater stories with the rest of the world.

“While working as a freshwater photographer, I have documented many positive and hopeful stories. In the Pacific Northwest, I have witnessed communities set aside their differences and come together to restore and protect their local watersheds. With loggers and farmers so often portrayed at odds with the conservation community, here they are working together pragmatically, in ways that are mutually beneficial and result in the ecological recovery of watersheds.

“In the Southeastern US, I have seen species returned to rivers with the help of numerous ongoing reintroduction programs that are aimed at reintroducing native freshwater fishes, amphibians, and invertebrates, including the recovery of some species once thought to be extinct. The efforts of groups like Conservation Fisheries, Inc. and the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, which are organizations dedicated to breeding, raising, and reintroducing threatened and endangered aquatic species, have brought life back to many of these streams.

“As the demand for freshwater continues to grow, documenting our ability to conserve healthy aquatic ecosystems, has the power to send a positive message to the rest of the world. In a future with changing aquatic ecosystems, and less water, we do have the ability to adapt and conserve our freshwater environments.”

“Below the pounding thunder of a small Costa Rican waterfall, a large school of hundreds of creek tetra navigate the dynamic waters feeding on drifting food. Tropical freshwater ecosystems support some of the highest levels of freshwater diversity on the planet.” © David Herasimtschuk/Freshwaters Illustrated

For more underwater photography with a focus on conservation, check out Karen Glaser’s work on marine life in Florida.

Discover More