I speak for the fish: water snakes are scary


When it comes to Halloween, I’m a Hallmark participant.

I love costume parties and have bought enough candy to contribute significantly to my dentist’s children’s college fund. But I don’t visit haunted houses and see the lure of fear.

I have an adventurous spirit but I don’t think I’m too brave. Yet when it comes to the natural world, I don’t have the fear that many seem to possess.

When I dress to dive, I often remind myself of this. Viewers will ask if it’s scary “out there.” I assure them it’s exciting, cool and fun, but not scary. Often they scan me with an oddly appraising expression, as if trying to figure out why I don’t have the appropriate level of fear they feel is warranted.

I always thought it was the unnatural act of breathing underwater that bothered them. But I revised my opinion after a recent conversation I overheard between two ex-divers.

Both enjoyed their scuba training and after getting their certification they traveled to Florida to try their new sport. Each made a dive in the sea and never dived again. Why? It was too scary.

As they listened, it became clear that they shared the perception that all marine life is out there, just waiting for humans. From moray eels to barracudas to sharks that could strike at any moment without warning, it all terrified them.

I am the opposite.

I dive because I find marine life fascinating rather than scary. Which doesn’t mean I’m immune to fear underwater. I usually find it easy to be brave in fresh water where there are no aquatic species that can really kill me.

So far, there is only one Great Lakes species that has the ability to scare me. Here is that story.

water snakes

The surface of the spring-fed river shimmered where the midday sun hit it. The creek bed was only 3 feet below the surface and the clear water rushed over a patchwork bottom of white sandbars with pockets of colored gravel.

The sun was unusually hot for mid-September.

Dogwoods and willows formed an unruly hedge along the bank. Their branches stretched out above the water, casting just enough shade for a sucker to sleep in the shallow waters below.

The shrub also dug into the water to provide a shoal of minnows and half a dozen salmon parr swimming along the shore, much-needed shelter from large fish and birds hunting above.

In addition to harboring fish, the riparian shrubs also provided the perfect habitat for one of the river’s VIPs, a very large predator.

Water snake enjoying the good weather. (Photo credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)

For me, trying to spot snakes on branches is like playing a hidden object video game. I can stare and stare and stare before suddenly realizing that there is one that has been in front of me the whole time.

Minnows and salmon parr swimming below find it equally difficult to spot snakes among the branches. But unlike me, it could cost them their lives.

The northern water snakes were not poisonous and since I am not afraid of snakes I was not afraid to dive with them…until I did.

monster area

As my husband and I sank into the river, we discovered that the water that appeared colorless on the surface was actually a pale green like a poorly steeped cup of herbal tea. The shallow depth and sunlight provided ample visibility, but it still felt a bit scary.

We slowly descended the bank. He was deeply undermined in places. I stopped and stared at one of the deeper shadows.

Looking into the dark cavity, I saw nothing, but for some reason it still scared me. I backed up and joined Greg as he walked towards the snake branches.

We cautiously approached the group where the snakes were resting above. The branches were not ordered like the branches of a pine nor uniformly oriented like the branches of a maple. Rather, they were twisted and crossed like a creaking spider’s nest.

The school of minnows and salmon parr moved further up the river. The miller ignored us.

Looking up we could see the mass of dogwood trees above, but the water distorted our vision like a fun house mirror, making it impossible to tell the snakes apart. Knowing that there were four or five above us but not being able to see them was very unnerving.

I had to remind myself that there was no reason to fear snakes and there was much to admire.

Points of sale

Northern water snakes are found throughout the eastern half of North America and are fairly common in the Midwest. They are not venomous but are often confused with cottonmouths which are a venomous species.

Water snakes don’t just live near water, they are excellent swimmers both above and below water. They stalk and catch fish underwater and they can hold their breath much longer than I can.

Three and a half feet is common for an adult, but they can reach 4 feet or more in length. Their skin is lined with shades of chocolate, mocha and bark brown.

Northern water snakes head straight for water when threatened. When cornered, they will defend themselves by striking. I had the misfortune to witness this behavior.

This site is a fairly frequented public access point. On almost every visit I saw people going out of their way to harass the snakes. The lucky ones go unnoticed. The less fortunate are most often stuffed or stoned until they seek shelter.

Snakes spend much of their time in water. Resting or lounging on the shore helps them raise their body temperature after spending time in cold water. The repeated return to the water disrupts their ability to regulate themselves.

Water snakes are fully aquatic predators.

They will take any small fish, from minnows, catfish and sunfish to juvenile bass and trout. In addition to fish, water snakes like to eat frogs and salamanders. Once in a while they have crawfish for supper. And they don’t mind mice wandering too close to the shore.

Like all predators, water snakes play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to control prey populations and eliminating diseased individuals.

Disappearance certificate

The group of branches was denser underwater than it appeared from above.

I squinted behind my mask. Just like above, I looked and looked and looked before I saw it. Lying on a branch no different from those above water.

Water snakes hiding in a group of branches. (Photo Credit: (Photo Credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)

He was a good sized adult about 3 feet long, but the amplification of my mask and nerves made him look slightly taller.

The snake belonged here and yet the sight of it basking on a branch underwater seemed completely surreal to me. If I was diving in the Amazon it might have seemed appropriate, but in a small stream by Lake Michigan it was very unexpected and super scary.

At best, we thought we saw one swimming. We didn’t expect to see one basking underwater.

Greg moved closer, his camera extended as far as his arm would allow. He filmed a little then got a little closer.

He was so focused on filming that he got too close. His leg barely brushed a twig but it was enough. The vibration passed through the cobweb of branches and the snake disappeared.

Like, one moment it was there and then it wasn’t!

I stared at him and had no idea where he was going.

There was no puff of sediment or flash of movement to indicate a direction of retreat. He simply disappeared.

It was one of the scariest and scariest things I’ve seen underwater. And I admit it scared the crap out of me on Halloween.

Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:

I speak for the fish: the shelf life of a fish

I speak for the fish: a discordant look at gizzard shad

Featured Image: Water snake gliding across the surface. (Photo credit: Greg Lashbrook/PolkaDot Perch)


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