It’s hard to get people to feel a connection with something they’ve never seen.
That’s where David Herasimtschuk comes in.
The 35-year-old Corvallis resident is the senior photographer and cinematographer for Freshwaters Illustrated, a small nonprofit whose mission is to protect freshwater ecosystems by opening people’s eyes to the intricate web of life that exists just out of sight beneath the surface of rivers, streams and lakes.
Through a series of films on such topics as the threatened Pacific lamprey, restoration work on the Willamette River and the precarious biodiversity of streams in southern Appalachia, Freshwaters Illustrated is attempting to shine a light on these little-known underwater realms, much as Jacques Cousteau did for the oceans with his groundbreaking documentaries in the 1960s and ’70s.
“You use images and you use video to get people interested in these underwater ecosystems, and then they start to care about these ecosystems,” Herasimtschuk said.
In recent years Herasimtschuk’s work has taken him to the Appalachian region, which he calls a hotspot for freshwater biodiversity.
“It’s kind of a mini-Amazon,” he said. “There’s streams out there where you have 60 or 70 species of fish.”
But there, as in so many other parts of the world, expanding human populations, habitat loss, climate change and other factors are putting ever greater pressures on fish and wildlife.
One of the most fascinating denizens of those waters is the hellbender, an aquatic salamander native to the Eastern United States. With thick bodies and wrinkled skin that give them the appearance of a rumpled dinosaur, these animals can live for 30 years or more and grow to more than 2 feet in length. But, because they spend most of their lives lurking under rocks at the bottom of swift-flowing rivers and streams, they are rarely glimpsed by humans.
“Some have individual rocks that they live their entire lives under,” Herasimtschuk said.
Most of the time the hellbender is a solitary creature, but during mating season, large numbers of males will congregate as they compete for the attention of eligible females — and the competition is fierce.
“You’ll get these giant salamander battles,” Herasimtschuk said. “And they’re really going at it — you’ll see death rolls, some get their arms ripped off, some have scars from past battles.”
In the spring of 2017, Herasimtschuk was snorkeling in East Tennessee’s Tellico River, gathering footage for a documentary called “Hidden Rivers,” when he came across a startling sight: a hellbender with a writhing northern water snake clamped in its jaws.
“This was definitely something I did not ever expect to see,” he said.
Moving cautiously so as not to spook the animals, he was able to snap a few frames with his underwater camera before the snake freed itself from the hungry salamander and swam away.
The encounter lasted only a few moments, but Herasimtschuk came away from it with something he hopes will have an enduring impact on hellbender conservation: His picture of the underwater battle, titled “Hellbent,” won the amphibian and reptile behavior category in the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, a prestigious international competition sponsored by Britain’s Museum of Natural History. (A second photo by Herasimtschuk, which shows a reproductive swarm of rough-skinned newts in a pond near Corvallis, won honorable mention in the same category.)
The honor came with a modest cash prize and something Herasimtschuk considers much more valuable: public exposure for North America’s hellbenders, which are in steep decline throughout their range. The winning images, along with those receiving honorable mention, become part of an international touring exhibition. They are also reproduced in publications around the globe, drawing worldwide attention to conservation issues surrounding the animals depicted.
In the hellbender’s case, it’s not entirely clear what’s causing their numbers to drop, although a number of factors seem to be in play, from warming waters to logging-related sedimentation, collecting and even the seemingly harmless practice of building rock towers in streams, which can deprive hellbenders of their carefully chosen homes.
“I think it’s almost death by a thousand cuts,” Herasimtschuk said.
Now there’s yet another threat looming on the horizon: a fungus called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans, or Bsal. So far it’s been confined to Europe and Asia, but that may not last.
“The worry is that if it does get over to North America, you could have serious problems with salamanders,” Herasimtschuk said.
Herasimtschuk is hoping his success in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition will help raise the profile of these underappreciated creatures and bring them the help they need to survive.
“We focus most of our efforts (at Freshwaters Illustrated) at the local level, but this — especially a category winner — it goes out all over the world,” he said.
“One of the nice things about getting these images out there is it starts a conversation about salamanders and the threats facing salamanders.”