Keith WilliamsKeith Williams is a freshwater underwater naturalist, photographer, educator, lecturer and writer. He has snorkelled rivers and streams extensively across North America, in Puerto Rico and China. His latest book, Snorkelling Rivers and Streams, An Aquatic Guide to Underwater Discovery and Adventure was published in March 2020.
To experience the river from the perspective of its tiniest and seemingly most insignificant inhabitants, is a rare and unlikely experience. Complete with a snorkel and mask however, negotiating its currents, boulders and waterfalls, underwater naturalist Keith Williams navigates Puerto Rico’s Rio Sabana. This snorkelling journey offers him a humbling yet eye opening experience as he considers the importance of this ecosystem’s smallest creatures and the staggering migrations they must undertake.
I noticed the Puerto Rico license plate slogan as I left the half dozen cars parked on the soft grass shoulder at the locked yellow gate. Isla Del Encanto. Island of Enchantment. It certainly seemed to fit. The rain had just stopped pouring. Golden light streamed through a hole in the clouds and made the jungle glisten green and sparkle wet. A rainbow formed between the mountain I was on, El Yunque, and the ocean I could see through gaps in the fern and palm trees.
I shouldered my dry bag and hiked out of the make shift parking lot past the locked gate. The road crossed Rio Sabana just beyond the gate which is where all the other car occupants had gathered. This was a popular swimming hole. My goal was to head to the same river higher up on the mountain, and snorkel my way back down without getting swept over any of the many falls along the way.
These rivers are special places. Enchanted even. Besides flowing through verdant lush rainforest, and being remote and primal, they contain some of the most amazing freshwater life I have ever encountered. The ecology of the rivers and streams I know, the ones I grew up in, in the eastern US is based on insects. May, caddis and stone flies feed on algae that grows on rocks and leaves and twigs that fall into the stream. These insects convert all this plant biomass into insect biomass and are in turn food for the fish that live there.
But in tropical streams those roles are carried out largely by shrimp. Different species of freshwater shrimp who graze and filter vegetative matter from rocks and water and are in turn food for everyone else, including other shrimps, the macrobrachium. The life history of these tiny animals is astonishing. Shrimp larvae migrate down the mountain, down falls that would seem to surely be fatal to any baby shrimp taking the leap, to the estuary where they moult and become juveniles who then, somehow, migrate back up the mountain, back up the falls and past all the other apparent impediments. I am captivated by this river and ecosystem and I want to learn more. I want to experience it. I want to try to understand life in Rio Sabana from the perspective of the shrimp, as much as that is possible given the difference in body size and morphology.
As fascinating as they are though, these rivers are risky. Maybe that is part of their enchantment. I watched the people splashing in this swimming hole and imagined the life there, that they didn’t notice. I saw how the river squeezed between two boulders before spilling down the 15 foot falls to form this pool. At best, being swept down would hurt like hell, at worst it would be fatal. I imagined similar falls upriver, that I would need to navigate along my journey.
I clawed at the bottom to stop but it was no use. I wasn’t sure what the water was pushing me towards. The river had me, and I had to accept whatever consequence lay ahead
The risks these rivers pose go beyond the obvious physical threats like boulders and falls. The gate was locked for a reason. A recent tropical storm saturated slopes, still destabilised from Hurricane Maria an the potential for landslides was heightened and very real. I walked past landslides that had been cleared, and over new ones that had come down in the last few weeks, the smell of freshly churned mud still in the air. Soils were saturated and conditions were right for the heavy clay soil to slide off the underlying volcanic geology.
Conditions are just about always right for flash floods. Heavy rains squeezed out of the clouds when they hit the mountain fall on steep terrain that funnels all that water into the river. It can be completely sunny where you are but dumping just above and you would never know it until the moment you were flushed downstream. These rivers can flash quickly with subtle warning but there are faint signs I would need to stay alert for. Namely a slight increase in the amount of flocculent matter in the water. I reviewed all of this in my head as I hiked higher, on a single-track trail that now headed straight up the mountain, almost bushwhacking through the jungle. Thick sticky mud added pounds to my sneakers, and made rocky outcrops that much more slick and difficult to traverse.
Finally, I emerged into the river bed, a collection of car sized boulders that forced the river around, between, over and under them. This was going to be a bumpy, scrapey ride. But it would also be a beautifully remote ride, I was in the rainforest halfway up El Yunque, alone on this picturesque river. Palms and tree ferns overhung the river and formed a cliché tropical paradise view most people miss because it’s not at the beach. The only sounds were the water tumbling past boulders, and the occasional coqui frog chirp. Until the rain started. Then the only thing anyone could hear was the downpour. For 15 minutes straight it dumped, and I debated whether getting into the river was a good idea. I didn’t want to get caught in a flash flood but I came all this way to explore Rio Sabana underwater. I watched the river for any slight indicator of an impending flash flood, changed into my wetsuit, strapped on my mask and slid into the pool before me.
The underwater world was just as magnificent as the forest. Shrimp extended frilly fans on the ends of their legs into the water and systematically licked them off in order as they captured floating particles. The ends of their legs, where they transition to fans, were red and blue, like painted finger nails. Gold lined salpiche shrimp padded the rocks with feather duster feet and fed on the stuff that stuck. Other salpiche wafted through the water like translucent pixies. A chestnut brown freshwater crab was less tolerant of my presence and ran sideways across the bottom for the shelter of a rock overhang.
The current was gentle in the pool but once out of its shelter it soon picked up. Just slightly downstream it sucked me through a chute head first between boulders. I clawed at the bottom to stop but it was no use. I wasn’t sure what the water was pushing me towards. The river had me, and I had to accept whatever consequence lay ahead. I eventually floated into another calm pool after pinballing between the rocks. I had an illusion that I’d be able to control my descent. This first experience proved I was wrong and that I would have to modify tactic.
I don’t know this river. I don’t know what hazards lay between me and my take out. Not controlling my descent so that I could stop before encountering a falls, for example, meant I wouldn’t be able to avoid these potentially fatal hazards. I started to stand up at the head of each pool to scout immediately downstream, laid back down in the water, snorkelled through the pool, got spit out through the chute or series of chutes into the next pool, stood to scout and repeated. It was unnerving at first but I learned that if I relaxed and just let the water take me, my body usually just flowed around the rocks minus a few moderately painful collisions. I needed to keep my hands up though, sure to guard my face when going over short falls and through cascades since the entrained silver air bubbles did a good job of hiding rocks from view. My fore arms took the beating rather than my jaw or my chest. One arm and fist guarded my face, the other my abdomen, just like how my dad taught me to box. It was unnerving but the river was full of life which put me at ease a bit and made it all worth it. I was here to try to experience the river from the perspective of the life here, to try to fathom the arduous migration these river shrimp make. I got used to not being in control after the sixth chute but I still braced for impact at the beginning, dreading what was about to occur, and rejoiced and celebrated the amazing shrimp as I snorkelled through the next downstream pool, completely alive and present in the moment. This trip was a microcosm for life. Gritting through the tough parts, and soaking in the good.
Until I got to the falls. It was at least a 15 foot straight drop into the pool below. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would make it past this hazard. The jumble of car sized boulders that formed the falls extended into the forest on each side, would sure make a portage difficult, bouldering on rock slick with algae. I could Bear Grylls it – find a vine in the jungle to rappel down. I could risk breaking my legs by jumping into plunge pool, with no idea of its depth. Hiking back upstream would be an arduous task, and even if I could recognise it, I didn’t think I would be able to make it back to the trail by dark but I wasn’t prepared to spend the night in the jungle. The slick portage was the only viable, though risky, option. I hugged a small car sized boulder to scramble out of the river and hopped onto the top of another shaped like an Escalade. I slid my way down that rock to land on another huge round slick piece of volcano. I just tried to stick my body to the rock like Velcro, to keep as much surface area in contact as possible, to create the maximum amount of friction and slowly slide down to the next rock, avoiding any ankle trapping, leg snapping gaps. I was grateful my bouldering friends weren’t present. My technique I’m sure looked like crap but it was effective, and I safely snorkelled across the plunge pool, watching shrimp scurry for cover. Were these the juveniles returning? How would they ever make it back up? I felt like such a pansy in comparison. I twirled through the pool with these dainty sprites. But that was just appearance. In reality, these were really tiny bad asses who had mastered the flow of this river. These tiny frail looking shrimp easily navigated where I struggled. This was their element, their home not mine. I felt like even more of a poser.
I must have lost track of my place in the river as I watched the shrimp, because suddenly I was captured by a strong sucking current. The first time this happened I at least saw it coming and could brace for impact. This time I was totally caught off-guard. The current grabbed my legs and spun me around. I was completely disoriented, and had no idea which way was up. I was just surrounded by a curtain of bubbles, summersaulting and twisting over rocks. The river spit me into a deep calm pool and as soon as I got my bearings I was face to face with a goby who glowed green turquoise. He let the current sling his slinky body around the river bottom rocks while he held his head high off the bottom at me, as if to say this was his turf, piss off.
Puerto Rico is Isla Del Encanto. This is Rio Del Encanto. The river of enchantment. Enchanted life that creates an enchanted thrill.
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