Rare chance to swim with salmon in New Brunswick


THE STAR - Toronto

A rare chance to swim with salmon in New Brunswick

Parks Canada offers just a handle of “swim with salmon for science” experiences every September in Fundy National Park in New Brunswick. You get to snorkel in a dry suit in the river where Atlantic salmon are getting ready to spawn.

By Jennifer BainTravel Editor
Tues., Oct. 10, 2017

FUNDY NATIONAL PARK, N.B.—Decked out in a leaking “dry suit,” water shoes, protective gloves and a life-jacket, and breathing awkwardly through a snorkel, I wade gingerly through the rocky shallows of the Upper Salmon River and get into position. My partner and I bump fists against our heads — the “good to go” sign — and launch ourselves into the current heading downstream a few arms lengths apart.

Instant bliss. Euphoria, even.

The dry suit insulates me from most of the cold September water and I follow instructions to float, face down, legs motionless, steering with a gentle dog paddle and letting the swift water transport me a short distance to the natural end of this rocky pool.

In the same instant that I acclimatize to this “swift water,” it streaks by — an Atlantic salmon, swimming just out of reach in the clear river water, close enough that I can see it through my foggy mask and without my glasses.

It doesn’t linger.

Another salmon swims by — or is it the same one back for another look at me?

Both times I raise one hand out of the water and wave vigorously enough to alert the Parks Canada crew on shore that I’ve seen a fish but not frantically enough to signal that something is wrong.

Giddy to have communed with the King of Fish, after I spit out the water I sucked into my snorkel and just as I’m nearing the end of my quick downstream float, two salmon swim by together.

Pure magic.

I’ve done a dismal job of processing whether I’ve seen four separate fish, two fish twice, or one fish twice and then two new ones. I don’t have time to figure out if they were male or female (the guys have a large bulbous nose and hooked jaw so I’m pretty sure they were all females), and whether they had been tagged or had their adipose fins hole punched.

But I have accomplished what I came to Fundy National Park to do.

This is one of just two spots in Canada that I know of where you can swim with salmon. You can snorkel and raft with a commercial tour operator in B.C. from July to September with Pacific salmon. Or you can snorkel here on just a few days every September with Parks Canada and a team of people who are working to jump-start the endangered wild Atlantic salmon population.

This is the third year the six-hour salmon outings have been offered. Just a few people took part in 2015 when it was a pilot project. Last year, the number rose to a dozen for Tuesday swims. This year, 28 people got to have this rare experience on Saturdays.

Today it’s me, a couple from Toronto who built their New Brunswick trip around this day and three locals. We’re joined by biologist Alex Parker, public relations officer Danielle Latendresse and interpreter Anthony Bardwell — all from Parks Canada — plus Fort Folly First Nations member and Fort Folly Habitat Recovery technician Tom Johnson who spoke of the cultural and historical significance of salmon.

“Some people they get here and kind of just focus on counting the salmon,” says Parker after we suit up and do a few test swims in what’s known as Slide Pool. “I just want people, when they go through, to soak this in and remember we are in the home of one of the most endangered animals in North America.”

It’s a gorgeous day and as we snorkel through a series of pools — Jigger’s Rock, Black Hole and Elbow Pool — Parker can’t help but add: “It’s ridiculous that I get paid to do this. If they knew how much I love this and that I would do it for free . . .”

We meet in Alma and take a couple of 4-by-4 trucks into the backcountry, stopping along the way to learn from funghi expert Bardwell about the “Fundy Fog Forest” and how it supports aquatic life that in turn becomes salmon food.

At a Parks Canada research cabin deep in the woods, we get a safety briefing about how to behave in and near swift water — slipping on the rocks is a major concern — and how to behave around the salmon (don’t stick cameras in their faces, for starters).

We learn about the work of Fundy Salmon Recovery, a groundbreaking collaboration of seven Indigenous communities, private industry, academics and government organizations.

If you happen to be in New Brunswick this week, thousands of salmon will be released into the Fundy National Park rivers by helicopter on Oct. 12. From Oct. 13 to 15, Parks Canada and Indigenous biologists will lead public hikes to salmon release points for Salmon Days. The world’s first wild salmon marine conservation farm, on Grand Manan Island, will also take visits.

It’s also not too soon to reach out to Parks Canada and reserve a spot for next year’s “swim with salmon for science” experiences.

Inner Bay of Fundy Atlantic salmon are born in the river, stick around for a few years and then head to the ocean to feed for about three years before returning to their birthplace to spawn. But the Bay of Fundy salmon have been doing a shortened ocean migration and not returning in healthy numbers.

Other attempts to nurture them in protected environments have seemed to make them not as fit for ocean life as needed.

The recovery project has been trying to “reinstall wild instincts” by collecting young, growing them in the ocean at Grand Manan and releasing them in Fundy as adults. Early results show good survival rates in making “better, stronger, more fit fish with higher chances of survival.”

What we do today — a series of short swims in river pools — is exactly what biologists do on “swim throughs” to monitor and count the salmon as they prepare for spawning. It’s all about balancing the Parks Canada mandate to connect Canadians with nature, and the need to not stress out the salmon. The only creature that is mildly stressed is me when Parker advises that putting the dry suit neckpiece on is “going to feel like a weak person is trying to strangle you.” It does, but it’s worth it.

“Thank you for coming across the province and getting cold and wet to show you care about salmon,” Parker tells our group when we’re done.

“It really does mean a lot to us,” agrees Latendresse.

Jennifer Bain was hosted by Tourism New Brunswick, which didn’t review or approve this story.

When you go:

Get there/around: I flew Air Canada from Toronto to Moncton and came home via Saint John. Fundy National Park is between them and you’ll need a rental car.

Swim with salmon: Parks Canada is already taking reservations for the Fundy National Park swim with salmon experience that will likely run on four Saturday in September 2018. The 2017 price was $132 for a six-hour day with lunch that’s for a maximum of 10 people and ages 12 and up. Parks Canada is looking at expanding the program to a second Maritime park.

I stayed at L’Hotel St. James, a boutique hotel, in Moncton where my suite came with a bathtub right in the living room. I stayed at the Hilton Saint John, a short walk to Saint John City Market. I also stayed at the friendly but no frills Fairway Inn (which boasts a retro diner) in Sussex near the park. There are accommodations in Alma and elsewhere in Fundy National Park.

Eat: Don’t miss Kelly’s Bake Shop in Alma. It’s known for its sticky buns but I’m a big fan of the date-filled coconut oatmeal cookies.