Divers delight in former stew of waste

Most adults can stand up in the Connecticut River – it's that shallow. But you wouldn't expect many to try, even 30 years after it was best known for sewage overflows.

Still, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts takes students and colleagues scuba-diving in the river. They have discovered that the Connecticut is not dead and it's not shallow, either. In one place it dips as deep as 125 feet.

Ed Klekowski and his fellow divers have found that the river supports a species of fly that doesn't exist anywhere else on earth, a shellfish no one had seen there in 40 years, submerged evidence of native American camps, and drowned structures from 19th-century log drives.

They dive the river about 60 times a year. Mr. Klekowski's most frequent partners are Sean Werle, a doctoral student in entomology, who discovered the new insect, and Philips Medna, an undergraduate. It isn't easy to scuba-dive a river. The current can tangle the gear, and visibility is like chocolate milk, but they don't care because they believe that the Connecticut today is a rich scientific field site for the first time in a half-century.

"You've got one of the major habitats unexplored – biologically, historically, and geologically," Klekowski says. "Essentially, the bottom is unexplored. Most people didn't appreciate it before we started."

He himself didn't appreciate the river at first. Klekowski started diving near home in the early 1990s only to practice using his gear. Today he says the river proves that the federal Clean Water Act was a success.

Klekowski; his wife, Libby, (a historical researcher); biology lecturer Douglas Smith; and the students have learned so much about the submerged river that they have started a database to track their observations. Klekowski says they are trying to understand the river from the Ice Age to the present.

Until the mid-1980s, the Connecticut River was so polluted that divers might have feared for their health, even if they expected to find anything alive in the stew of paper mill waste, poorly treated sewage, and PCBs. Starting in the 1970s, sewage plants had to improve, and paper mills had to stop altering the chemistry of the water so that creatures couldn't survive. Today most experts acknowledge the Connecticut is the cleanest it has been in many decades.

Here are a few of their dozens of discoveries:

King Philip's Abyss: One day in the summer of 1997, the divers were trolling along near the French King Bridge, near Turners Falls, Mass., when the boat's solar depth finder went crazy, going from 28 to 125 feet in a few seconds. They called their discovery an abyss because it's so dark down there that they dive with flashlights. The abyss is west of a 120-foot-deep spot a diving club had earlier named French King Hole.

The shellfish: When Werle scooped up a mollusk shell out of the gravel in 1998, and realized an animal was inside, he was the first person in more than 40 years to find a yellow lampmussel in the main stem of the Connecticut.

The blob: This yellow invertebrate looks like a 3-foot diameter hunk of coral. It is a bryozoan, meaning it reproduces by forming buds and branches. Blobs cling to the edge of the Abyss.

The worm: One of the many worms they've found is a 5-millimeter-long critter that eats by filtering the microscopic nutrients in the water. No one had seen this worm in the Connecticut River before 2001, when the divers discovered large numbers of them above Turners Falls.

They have also seen, amid the murk, glacial deposits, 100-year-old bottles, pre-industrial tools, and pieces of old bridges that collapsed.

Klekowski and the other divers explored the flooded towns that lie beneath the Quabbin Reservoir two years ago for a documentary. Today Klekowski is producing another documentary about the days when loggers drove timber down the Connecticut River in the spring. He says that many of the structures they built to guide the logs are now acting as artificial reefs for fish.

"It's kind of hard to compare him to some of the recreational divers that come in here," says William Hayre, an owner of Valley Divers in South Deerfield, Mass., where Klekowski first signed up for diving lessons. "It was a whole new realm of biology for him."

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