Diving for hellbenders

Biologists from Smithsonian's National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

Biologists from Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gear up for a hellbender dive.

How do you find a 2 foot long salamander under 30 feet of water? You put on your SCUBA gear! We were in southwest Virginia this week, diving to the bottom of the New River in search of the elusive hellbender. This brown, slimy salamander has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. But in the last 30 years, hellbenders have started disappearing. Because they breath through their skin, hellbenders need clean, clear water to survive. And these days, it’s getting harder to find clean rivers.

The team prepares to drop 30 feet down into the river in search of hellbenders.

The team prepares to drop 30 feet down into the river in search of hellbenders.

Our 2-day SCUBA search didn’t turn up any hellbenders in the New River. It could be because there’s a fair amount of muck (also called sediment) in the river and not many big rocks for hellbenders to hide under. Maybe there were never many hellbenders there to begin with. But even without hellbenders, the New River is a beautiful place to spend the day.

We got skunked, but with a view like this, who can complain?

We got skunked, but with a view like this, who can complain?

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