By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences
National Geographic photographer Jen Hayes has spent more than 11,000 hours underwater, swimming with saltwater crocodiles and blackwater diving. When asked how she’s staying sane these days, it’s no surprise that she sought solace with her aquatic neighbors: “Sturgeon,” she replied.
Jen’s appreciation for the species stretches back to the ‘90s when she began documenting lake sturgeon during graduate school. “I fell in love with this group of dinosaur fishes,” she writes.
Jen, along with her partner in photography and life, David Doubilet, live on the St. Lawrence River, which connects the Great Lakes, a vault for about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, to the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s here that 27 species of sturgeon live, including these four-month-old lake sturgeon fingerlings (above) that are being released into the St. Lawrence River. Eggs collected from the native St. Lawrence stocks are raised in a hatchery and released to restore populations of this species. Although the lake sturgeon is the oldest and largest native fish species in the Great Lakes, it is listed as threatened in New York State as its population has been decimated by habitat loss and overharvest.
Every June, Jen returns to the same spawning area. This year was no different. Here, decades-old fish gather for just a few days. “It is a very short window into their very secret lives,” she writes.
“And my answer to sanity."
This year, these young sturgeon are particularly abundant. Hayes says the lake sturgeon eggs collected in June and shipped to Genoa Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin demonstrated such good survivorship that the hatchery had too many sturgeon, “a very good problem to have,” she adds. The decision was made to ship thousands of them overnight to New York State and were released into their native waters on July 23.
“I submerged beneath the surface to document the behavior of these tiny ancients and their potential predation by the invasive round goby,” Hayes says of the lake sturgeon depicted above. “The two-inch-long sturgeon excitedly swam down the slope seeking deeper water and explored their new home. I watched as they successfully swam past smaller predators but did witness larger hand-sized gobies stalk and consume some of the newcomers."
Throughout her years of documenting lake sturgeon in the St. Lawrence River, Hayes has encountered these animals at various points in their life cycle—such as this female sturgeon (above) that Hayes came across between spawning events in 2011. Hayes says female lake sturgeon look for food by using the tiny electroreceptors atop their heads as well as their mustache of four long barbels, whisker-like sensory organs; they then vacuum up their prey using a complex tubular mouth.
Every few years, Hayes encounters Miss Chippy (above), a more than 76-year-old lake sturgeon that she first met in the late ‘90s as she was completing her graduate work. Though Hayes aged and tagged Miss Chippy at the time, she says she can easily recognize the fish from an old wound to her spinal cord. In 2011, Hayes spotted the missing chunk of flesh on this lake sturgeon’s back and swam over to pose together for this photograph. In a way, she says, it was a family reunion.
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Today in a minute
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The big takeaway
Hotshots: Women make up only 12 percent of wildland firefighters—but that number is growing. Photographer Alex Potter explains this is partly due to the rise of initiatives dedicated to cultivating female leadership such as the one Deb Flowers, pictured second from left (above), leads for the National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center. Here, she discusses the outcomes of a controlled burn with Seneca Smith, Kelly Lewis, and Tiffany Vickery. Below left, Ritz Krantz, (left) a 12-year firefighter on a helicopter rappel crew in McCall, Idaho, cleans and catalogues equipment. When fires are too difficult to reach by road or by foot, the rappel team gets to them by sliding down 250-foot ropes such as those pictured below right.
In a few words
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The last glimpse
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