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Susquehanna Life

Face-First: Scuba in the Susquehanna

Dec 09, 2016 07:47PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Common shiners spawning on a chub nest.

By John Duffy

If you’re out on the road and see a man face down in some creek, don’t panic. It might be Keith Williams; he’s there on purpose, and he’s doing serious science.  

Up close and personal

A sea lamprey at the end of its spawning run.

For the past eight years Williams has spent time getting up close and personal with countless waterways. The waters he’s snorkeled include most of the lower Susquehanna watershed, the Delaware River and almost all the upper Chesapeake Bay feeders: big rivers and tiny streams, anything that can support life worth looking at.

He’s always ready to take a dip: a snorkel, mask and an endless curiosity are all he needs. Schedule and weather permitting he takes several dips a week. Too long in between dips and he gets itchy. Like naturalist John Muir, who wrote “I must go to the mountains to hear the news…,” Williams stays connected to inland waterways out of professional and personal fidelity.

Spiritual and emotional connection

Williams blogs about his adventures at and reflects on his personal and professional journey in his book, Snorkelhead: Adventures in Creek Snorkeling.

“I always kept notes on what I was seeing to get more people interested in the health of our rivers,” said Williams.”

When not wide-eyed underwater Williams is director of NorthBay, an environmental and character education center near Elkton, MD, that serves students and teachers year-round. “We teach that every decision we make has consequences, whether it’s a decision that affects our environment or a decision that affects our personal lives,” he explains.

When he dons his wetsuit and slips into the water, Williams is on the lookout for fish, aquatic insects, crayfish and algae. All the while he’s asking questions. How much life is there here? Is it the kind of life that’s supposed to be here? How has the picture changed since last time I visited?

“Water samples and tests can tell you a lot, but not everything,” he said.  “Just seeing one new species in a river can tell us a lot about the health of the water.”

He snorkels at night, and even braves the chilling dead of winter, drifting under sheets of ice to find, time and again, that aquatic life does not take a winter vacation. Several times a year he takes school groups, even teachers, into the water with him.

His first task is to get people to want to put their hands or faces in water they’ve been told will make them sick. But, for Williams, creek snorkeling goes beyond environmental education. Once he started, it soon became a way to reconnect with the very landscapes of his youth and sense of wonder they created.

Places they once shared

As a science-obsessed child, he spent summer vacations camping along the Delaware, exploring some backwater or another, often in the company of his father. The pair took up scuba diving when Williams was in the 7th grade. So when he took up creek snorkeling after the death of his parents, Williams realized it was also way to stay connected; keeping an eye on the places they once shared and explored.

He’s watched stretches of water from his childhood recover, degrade and recover again. So when nutrient overloading from chemical fertilizers turn a creek near his hometown—that once supported native trout—into green muck, Williams takes it personally. 

And rivers are a spiritual sanctuary as well. As a part-time swift water rescue diver and paramedic, Williams has witnessed unspeakable tragedy in the very rivers in which he loves to spend time. In a way, visiting a river to count the fish, frogs, turtles, eels and caddisfly eggs is also a spiritual act. Rivers can take life but they are a part of renewing all life at the most basic level.

Williams hopes his book may push readers to take a dip themselves. “The more people that are intimately in touch with waterways the better,” he said.

And it’s not a difficult thing to do. “Your local swimming or fishing hole is the perfect place,” he urges.  Don’t trespass. Avoid fast currents, or areas that are obviously polluted, stinky, stagnant or have obstructions.

The science is solid

Implementing ways to contain urban runoff and treat sewage, as well as planting trees, incorporating no-till farming, and ending wholesale industrial dumping, improves water quality.  

“Ever since the Clean Water Act things have definitely improved,” Williams notes.

Rivers used to catch on fire. The Susquehanna once choked on the dust of abandoned coal mines. Williams remembers summers at his grandmother’s house in Shamokin. “There was literally raw sewage in the creek,” he recounts. “And thankfully that doesn’t happen anymore. I wouldn’t be putting my face in the water if it was.

“But many of our waterways in the region, the Susquehanna in particular, face less visible threats,” he continues. “We’ve got pharmaceuticals in our water now and we’re seeing hermaphroditic smallmouth bass as a result. There’s still too much sedimentation in the water, and still too much nutrient loading.” The solutions are known, but expensive.

But Williams has found that, above all else, his exploration of small waters breeds hope. Like when three obsolete low-head dams were removed on a Delaware creek.

“Three weeks after the dam was down there were spawning shad and herring upriver for the first time in a hundred years,” he said. “If given half a chance, rivers have the ability to make an amazing comeback, and it’s an incredible experience to watch.”

Visit for more information and Williams’ tips on protecting our water quality.

John Duffy is a writer, father, chef and social studies teacher living in Elizabethtown; his writing focuses on art, culture, history, the environment and the places they intersect.

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