Aigas Field Centre
Aigas Field Centre

A Leap of Faith

1 December, 2020. Posted by Aigas Field Centre

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of accompanying professional photographer Laurie Campbell on Aigas’ Nature Photography Masterclass. Not owning a camera any bigger than my pocket I felt somewhat inadequate amongst their foot-long lenses, but sometimes it’s the experience itself that overrides any image than can be taken, and I had one very special encounter which I will never forget…

Autumn in the waterways of the northern hemisphere, and a very exceptional creature is embarking on its first migration as an adult – it is going home.

After a year or more feeding in rich Atlantic waters, and now weighing 3-4 kg, it feels a change come about. Driven by hormones and environmental cues it begins to head toward land and a river mouth, whence it swims against the current for up to 200 miles upriver. During this journey it will not feed, instead living off energy reserves. Numerous obstacles threaten its passage; it must leap over falls, dodge fishermen’s hooks, and the otters who rather fancy the taste of its muscular pink flesh. Exhausted, it finally reaches its destination.

What I am referring to is, of course, the king of all fish: the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Its destination: the spawning grounds where it hatched.

As I gazed into the torrent of white water grazing the black rocks at the Falls of Shin, my eye was suddenly caught by a dark, glistening torpedo, maybe half a metre long, erupting from the bubbling depths. The leap only lasted a fraction of a second, but the moment is frozen in my mind’s eye; the entire salmon clearing the water, a beautiful juxtaposition of a sleek, gleaming form over turbulent, foaming waters. Of course, the end to this balletic leap is not quite so elegant; a belly flop onto the rocks, a last futile tail flick then a drop into the unforgiving waters.

My picture of a salmon leaping

We stood for hours transfixed by this extraordinary event. The salmon navigating this stretch of river in Sutherland are reaching the end of their journey. Cool, calm waters and a gravelly riverbed provide a perfect location for female salmon (hens) to excavate a nest (redd) in which to lay her eggs (up to 1400 per kg body weight!). Male salmon (cocks) will swim alongside and fertilise them, but sometimes precocious parr (immature salmon) will also sneakily fertilise the spawn! Their immense journey now over and their task complete, many will then die. Only 5% of salmon who have spawned before will return to breed, such are the challenges of their life cycle.

I had always wanted to see salmon jumping and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see them in the beautiful Scottish Highlands.

by Emily Richens

Ps. Laurie was very kind to lend me his dslr camera for the photo!