by Drs. Robert Berdan, Sharif Galal and Wayne Lynch
October 20, 2018
Male Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) have a life span of 4-6 years
Adams River Salmon Run
Every four years there is a dominant Sockeye salmon run in early October (2018, 2022) at Adams River British Columbia and it includes millions of fish returning to spawn. Subdominant years (2019, 2003) can also have a substantial run. This year I joined two friends and fellow photographers (Wayne and Sharif) to photograph Sockeye salmon. One doesn't need a lot of sophisticated equipment to photograph the fish. You can photograph the spawning salmon from the shoreline with any camera. For those that want to enter the water with waders or wet suit you will need to obtain a permit where you need to justify getting into the water.
The drive from Calgary to Chase a town near the Adams River is about 7.5 to 8 hours depending on how often you stop along the way. In Tsútswecw Provincial Park (used to be called Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park), there are viewing platforms, live underwater cameras and various vendors offering food. Entrance to the park is $5 per car and some trails are wheel chair accessible. One of the best places to view the spawning salmon is the viewing platform about 300 m west of the parking lot. Other attractions in the park include: Artisans market, food vendors, Indigenous activities, wild salmon cooking demonstration, live music and yoga with the salmon. The park is open from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm Sept 28 to October 21. Download Park Brochure PDF.
Below are some pictures we took between October 14-16, 2018 on our trip to the Adams River.
Female and Male Sockeye Salmon in the Adams River
Sockeye Salmon in the Adams River - view above and below the river
Folks gather around the Adams river to watch the Sockeye Salmon spawning
Sockeye Salmon in the Adams River
Two male Sockeye Salmon in shallows
Two male Sockey Salmon
Closeup of Male Sockeye Salmon showing head markings
Three male and one female Sockeye Salmon in the Adams River
Spawning salmon in shallow tributary of the Adams River.
Female Sockeye Salmon top and Male below in the Adams river.
Sockeye Salmon in shallow tributary
Above are dead Sockeye salmon. The decaying fish provide food for coyotes, mink, bears, eagles and other scavengers. The also provide important nutrients for the plants living next to the river. The dead fish affect nitrogen levels which in turn aid the growth of algae which is a source of food for zooplankton that the fish feed on.
Salmon Eggs and Biology of Sockeye
Sockeye Salmon eggs at the bottom of a stream
Closeup of a Sockeye salmon egg
Closeup of a Sockeye salmon egg
Alevin about 10X
Above Daphnia which is the Sockeye Salmons favourite food
Young sockeye feed in lakes mainly on crustacean zooplankton, especially "water fleas" of the genus Daphnia shown above. When Daphnia are sparse they supplement their diet with insect larvae and pupae in the water column. The characteristic that identifies sockeye from all other salmon is the number of gill rakers on the first gill arch - there can be more than 30 reflecting its zooplankton feeding specialization (Behnke 2002). Young sockeye can spend up to 1-3 years in a lake before juveniles undergo the smolting process in preparation for life in the ocean. Most sockeye migrate to the ocean when they are 8-15 cm long and migration of smolts occurs in spring.
Sockeye spawn in late September through early November (every year with a dominant run every four years 2018, 2022). Sockeye are the second largest fish to spawn in the Adams River. These fish are bright red with green heads when they spawn (Source Adams River Salmon Society).
Male Sockeye as it appears in the ocean. A. Hoen and Co. - Scanned from plates in Evermann, Barton Warren; Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, Washington, D.C. Department of Commerce and Labour Bureau of Fisheries. Image in the Public domain.
During spawning the Sockeye salmon undergoes a radical transformation from the ocean going appearance above to the bright red version with green head and curved jaw with more teeth as shown below for the male. Females undergo similar changes in colouration but to a lesser degree and do not form a dorsal hump or curved jaws.
In mid to late winter the salmon eggs hatch into tiny alevins. By spring they emerge from the gravel as 2 cm long fry. The fry are preyed upon by birds and other fish. The Adams river sockeye spend their first year in the Shuswap lake where about 75% of them are eaten. One year later remaining fry are called smolts (up to 12 cm long) and are preparing for their 400 km journey to the Pacific ocean. These small silver fish form large schools. The smolts grow to about 3 Kg 80 cm long in the ocean as adults. After 2 years in the ocean they begin their journey back via the Fraser river. They swim about 29 km per day on this trip which takes about 18 days from the mouth of the Fraser river to the Adams river. On this trip home they have to avoid predators, climb fish ladders, waterfalls and avoid fishers. Before they swim up the Fraser river their shimmering silver skin turns bright red. Their heads turn green, they form a dorsal hump, and males have longer teeth and jaws (see above). The bellies of the females swell with eggs.
When the sockeye arrive at Adams River they form pairs in the gravel areas of the river bends. Males fend off competitors while females dig a nest (called a redd). Females use their body to shift the gravel on the river bottom. The females lay eggs in the redd, the males fertilize the eggs with milt and the females cover the eggs with gravel.
Shortly after the fish die and their carcasses contribute to the ecosystem becoming food for eagles, ospreys, gulls, minks, coyotes and bears. What remains adds valuable nutrients to the soil and sediment feeding vegetation growing near the water.
Sockeye are the most important commercial salmon species in North America. Sockeye are concentrated in the Fraser River basin in BC, Bristol Bay region of Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia.
Underwater Equipment and the Photographers
In order to get into the water to photograph the Salmon requires a permit for which you must explain why you wish to photograph them in the water. Permits are provided to photographers who can justify this - for instance to write an article, publish a magazine or book. One can wear chest waders or put on a full wet suit or dry suit. The camera must be water tight or placed in a water tight case. A flash is also helpful as sometimes the water is not clear or can be dark and a flash ensures a good depth of field and reasonably sharp picture.
Photographing Sockeye Salmon in the Adams River
Sharif in a shallow tributary photographing Sockeye Salmon
Sharif setting up his underwater camera and housing. The cameras he used were the Lumix LX100 and ikelite underwater housing with 2 ikelite DS125 strobes. He also used a Nikon D700 within a similar system. Same strobes and ikelite housing and two extension arms and the camera had a Tokina 10-17 fisheye lens.
In the background Wayne Lynch and foreground Sharif Galal photograph Salmon in the Adams River.
Wayne's camera in small underwater housing. The white plastic acts to spread the flash. Canon G12 with an Ikelite plexiglass housing. All the images were shot as RAW files.
Sharif in the Adams river in golden light during late afternoon.
Wayne holding his underwater camera in the Adams River.
Robert on left and Sharif on the right - wearing chest waders in the Adams River.
American Dipper next to the salmon stream (Nikon 300 mm F2.8 lens Nikon D500).
Chase and surrounding area
Chase is a small town of about 2,500 located near the Adams river. Its main industry is forestry and tourism. It is located at the outlet of the Little Shuswap lake which is the source of the South Thompson River. We started each day with breakfast at Craig's Bakery which offers a wide variety of tasty food, donuts, and coffee. Chase also offers a water falls with a zip line in the summer. The folks we met were friendly. The two mornings we visited the town a fog covered the valley. Temperatures during the day reached 20°C and fall colours were in full tilt.
Craig's Bakery in Chase opens at 6:00 am and offers a wide selection of foods for breakfast, lunch or dinner. 14-24 mm Nikon Lens.
In the foreground Wayne drinking coffee and Sharif at the counter in Craig's Bakery. 14-24 mm Nikon lens.
Chase creek surrounded by autumn foliage.
Autumn colours along the banks of the Adams River
A short walk up Chase creek ends in a beautiful waterfall.
Driving up Kamloops Shuswap road provides an over view of the valley below.
View from Kamloops Shuswap road showing the clouds and fog in the valley below hiding the town of Chase.
Early morning dew on a spider web
Beach on north end of Little Shuswap Lake in front of Quaaout Lodge where we had dinner one night. We stayed overnight at Jade Mountain Motel which offered reasonable room rates next to the Trans-Canada Hwy. The next dominant Sockeye Salmon run is in 2022.
Tsútswecw Provincial Park (Roderick Haig-Brown)
2300 Squilax-Anglemont Rd, Chase, BC
Located about 60 minutes from Kamloops
Northeast on Highway 1
References and Additional Material
The Great Salmon Run in Adams River BC by Sharif Galal - article on this site
Brochure about Tsútswecw Provincial Park and the Salmon Run - PDF
R. J. Behnke (2002) Trout and Salmon of North America. The Free Press, Toronto. pg 59-64.
The Salmon Society Web site - The Adams River Salmon Society
Chase Visitor Center web site
Tsútswecw Provincial Park (Roderick Haig-Brown)
Fisheries and Oceans Canada - Salute to the Sockeye
Lifecycle of the Adams River Sockeye Diagram - Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Sockeye salmon - Wikipedia
Who was Roderick Haig Brown - web site
Robert Berdan, Sharif Galal and Wayne Lynch (The 3 Amigos) at the Adams river, BC
Dr. Robert Berdan is a professional nature photographer living in Calgary, AB specializing in nature, wildlife and science photography. Robert retired from Cell\Neurobiology research to take up photography full time years ago. Robert offers photo guiding and private instruction in all aspects of nature photography and Adobe Photoshop training - including photomicrography, macrophotography.
Dr. Sharif Galal is a medical doctor and a biotechnology researcher. He received his M.D. from Egypt and his specialty degree in diving medicine from Stellenbosch University - South Africa in addition to a Master’s degree in biomedical sciences from university of Calgary. Apart from medicine and research, Dr. Galal is an amateur underwater photographer, scuba diver and an enthusiastic wildlife and nature advocate.
Dr. Lynch is a popular guest lecturer and an award-winning science writer. His books cover a wide range of subjects, including: the biology and behaviour of owls, penguins and northern bears; arctic, boreal and grassland ecology; and the lives of prairie birds and mountain wildlife. He is a fellow of the internationally recognized Explorers Club - a select group of scientists, eminent explorers and distinguished persons, noteworthy for their contributions to world knowledge and exploration. He is also an elected Fellow of the prestigious Arctic Institute of North America.