Seeing the fish and understanding the water systems will encourage stewardship and enjoyment. Leslie and Etchison saw an opportunity to promote snorkeling in North Carolina by developing a snorkel guide for Western North Carolina, part of the catalyst for the Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail. They also explored the book by Casper Cox “Snorkeling the Hidden Rivers of Southern Appalachia“ and an article featuring an interview with the author in Appalachian Voice. Cox contributed by designing the logo fabricating the signs for the trail.
Leslie said snorkel trails encourage ecotourism. The activity is not consumptive, provides an economic boost to communities along the trail, and it is already a popular hobby. The team found 10 locations where people can safely snorkel and where they will find interpretive signs with fish identification and snorkel information. Accessible by land, nine of these snorkel spots are publicly owned and one is on a land trust property with public access.
Leslie encourages people to get in the water. It’s a low-cost way of enjoying a stream and the life beneath the surface. Lovely images may be captured with underwater photography. For example, the tangerine darter is one of the colorful fish snorkelers may observe in the freshwater habitat. The fish has orange and green markings and is easily viewed.
The team hopes other states, including Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, will develop similar programs. Many expressed interest when the idea was presented at the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society’s professional meeting. Later this year, the concept will be presented at the North Carolina chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
The not-for-profit organizations MountainTrue and Mainspring Conservation Trust are partners and many local governments, community centers and informal organizations have shown great enthusiasm and partnered with North Carolina on the project.
“River snorkelers will get to experience our rivers through the fishes’ eyes and explore all of the unique and beautiful species that are hidden just under the surface,” Etchison said. “You’ll get the chance to see crayfishes, mussels, aquatic snails, salamanders, aquatic insects and fishes you don’t normally see, even if you fish.”
As river snorkeling participation has become a popular alternative to the traditional uses of rivers and lakes, different businesses and organizations have started guided trips, which has increased the economic stimulus to companies and organizations in the region.
“The Blue Ridge Snorkel Trail is a logical partnership for us, given how it showcases the natural wonders of life under the water surface in our mountain region,” said Callie Moore of MountainTrue, a southern Blue Ridge environmental and conservation organization with robust aquatic monitoring and conservation programs. “Given the excitement already generated around the pilot sites, we hope to secure more funding to expand this program so that there is a snorkel site in each county in Western North Carolina.”
The North Carolina General Assembly designated 2023 as the Year of the Trail to bring attention to the numerous outdoor recreational attractions and networks of diverse trails North Carolina offers.