Salmon Spawning events finally recorded.
Many hours spent with my underwater camera
After a couple of years and countless hours of stalking river beds and pools in the fall of 2015 I was able to finally photograph and video several actual salmon spawning events from the underwater perspective. In my second year of salmon photography I sort of inadvertently got video footage of Pink Salmon spawning when I had my camera placed beside a Redd. For two more years I tried to seek out and find a pair of salmon that I could photograph at the actual moment of egg release. Many times I would lay in a river in one spot watching a pair do all the right moves, digging a redd, sparring, bumping, quivering but no actual release. One time on a late September day in the Quinsam River I spent almost two hours laying motionless in the fast flowing water watching a pair of Pink Salmon doing their thing. I started violently shivering in my wetsuit and then went to feeling relatively calm and good. Knowing this is the warning signs of the onset of hypothermia, and with falling evening light, I dejectedly crawled my way up the bank and hobbled back to where I parked my car. Once again frustrated by the lack of results.
Perseverance pays off
This last season I got a bit smarter and started wearing my drysuit in the rivers once it got colder and on a mid October afternoon I got lucky. Well lucky if that’s what you call 2 hrs and 46 mins laying in fast flowing Quinsam River trying not to move and disturb the pair of Pinks. After what felt like an eternity, with sore arms and hardly being able to see straight, I finally was able to observe first hand through the viewfinder what I had been seeking all these cold hours- the moment of release and fertilization of the eggs. And I was able to get some decent photographs, despite my blurred vision and numb fingers. I left the river cold but excited to finally have it documented. (see comments below for a more detailed description of the actual process)
There aren’t many images out there of this actual event happening, and I can see why. Quite often occurring in the evening, it is a difficult thing to observe, let alone photograph. So with my confidence up and figuring I knew a bit more of the signs to look for I was ready for more.
Chum Salmon spawn captured.
The very next day I switched rivers and went to see if I could find some spawning Chum Salmon in the side channels of the Campbell River. Finding a few in an area that looked hopeful I settled in and observed. It seemed like there was a fair amount of pre-spawning moves being made ( lots of sparring and the fish version of flirting) so I scoped out a few likely spots. The next day I returned and took up station beside what looked like a pair that were ready. This time during almost two and a half hours I watched the entire process again. First the redd (nest) being built by the female, which involves her turning sideways and slapping her tail down to move stones to make a depression, and removing the finer gravel and sand from amoung the rocks at the bottom of the nest., Then commences lots of sparring and jostling by the males in the vicinity who are all trying to get in on the action. This can be quite violent at times. The female also pushes away a lot of males she doesn’t want. The dominant male bumps the female and quivers beside her a lot to try and entice her to release the eggs. As time went on I started to witness a lot of anal fin probing. This is when the female extends her anal fin and pushes it down into the bottom of the redd to see how deep the spaces are between the rocks, making sure there is plenty of space for the eggs to be able to settle into. Finally the male quivered beside the female (in just the right way I suppose) and she acknowledged it was time by arching her back down into the redd and opening her mouth into a wide gape. Several other males immediately lined up on either side and with mouths wide open the release event commenced. The eggs were not visible as the white cloud of milt from the males obscured things a bit. After a few seconds the female started pushing the males away and covering up the eggs which had dropped down amongst the rocks in the redd. She did this by turning sideways upstream from the redd and swishing her tail into the finer gravel, making it wash down and settle over the eggs. During this stage hundreds of little sculpin fish scurried around picking up the residue of the milt and trying to fit the eggs in their mouths. After taking 15 minutes to fill in the redd the female then settled in to keep watch over her new nest. She would stay in this way for several days until slowly succumbing to the forces of nature which would cause her to die, her part in the cycle now complete.
I couldn’t believe my luck in witnessing this again so soon. Feeling really confident I returned the next day and photographed and took video of two more events happening in pretty much the exact same way. I sure felt privileged being so close to this marvel of nature and finally having witnessed the completion of the entire cycle. Just a couple of weeks ago I photographed hundreds of little Chum fry exiting the river system. I wonder if any of them were ones that were conceived with me watching over last year. This year I hope to film Chinook, Coho, Sockeye and Rainbow trout spawning.