CORVALLIS — Jeremy Monroe is too young to remember all those Jacques Cousteau TV specials that launched the undersea world into the popular consciousness in the 1960s. But he's fully aware of the enduring impact they had on ocean conservation.
Now, through his own underwater video work, he wants to do the same thing for rivers, lakes and streams.
"A couple generations of marine biologists probably got the first bug in their head" from following Cousteau's undersea adventures on television, Monroe said.
"In some ways, that's kind of what we aspire to help build for freshwater — to help build a freshwater aesthetic and help build an appreciation for the beauty and importance of freshwater ecosystems."
Monroe started using underwater photography — both still and video — during his graduate work in river ecology at Colorado State University. Part of his research focused on caddisfly and mayfly larvae, but when he searched for images of these aquatic invertebrates, most of what he found were fly-tying patterns.
It struck him that the public's consciousness of freshwater life was largely limited to game fish, shaped by images of trophy bass, trout and salmon hoisted aloft by grinning anglers.
He decided to do something about it.
In 2004, two years after he finished grad school, Monroe launched Freshwaters Illustrated, a nonprofit organization that seeks to educate people about the richness and complexity of the freshwater realm by letting them see it for themselves.
Supported by membership fees and grants, Monroe dons a wetsuit and snorkel mask, takes his cameras into rivers and streams, lakes and marshes and comes back with arresting images of life beneath the surface.
He relocated from Colorado to Oregon in 2006, settling with his family in Mapleton. In 2008, they made the move to Corvallis, where they've found themselves in good company.
"OSU is a heavyweight when it comes to aquatic ecology," Monroe said. "Between the university and the (government) agencies, there may be more aquatic biologists per capita in Corvallis than any other city in the U.S."
Freshwaters Illustrated's first major video production, "RiverWebs" — a documentary on pioneering Japanese ecologist Shigeru Nakano — aired last year on PBS. Other projects include an educational video on river restoration for the Freshwater Trust, another on bull trout for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and an upcoming episode of OPB's "Oregon Field Guide" on Pacific lamprey. Monroe has also begun work on a full-length documentary about the Willamette River.
Freshwaters Illustrated also conducts workshops in underwater photography, training scientists to be better visual chroniclers of the subsurface realms in which they work. Early next year, Monroe hopes to hire his first full-time employee to create an archive of stock images that can be used by scientists, educators and the media.
Like Jacques Cousteau before him, he hopes to change the popular image of an important but often invisible part of the world around us.
"My main motivation is there's a whole lot to share and celebrate about rivers, wetlands, lakes and the people who are either working to understand them or conserve them," Monroe said.
"It's kind of this hidden beauty that's at our feet. Water's all around us in the Northwest, whether it's a big river like the Willamette or a little stream like Oak Creek. And they're just full of life."