After stuffing my appendages into a neoprene wetsuit tight enough to defeat Houdini, I cinch up my mask, bite down on my snorkel, and belly flop into the icy current of Vancouver Island's Campbell River. I'm here with 11 other customers who have each shelled out $47 for the chance to float facedown through rapids and bounce off rocks among hundreds of bronze-sided, migrating coho headed the other way. The schools part and then close behind us in the murk, hardly noticing our frogman flotilla. Forget swimming with sharks—here, on the only fish-watching adventure tour of its kind in North America, I've become one with the salmon.
Snorkeling among the Campbell's salmon runs first started in the 1950s when Canadian nature writer Roderick Haig-Brown wrote Measure of the Year, which described his own experience swimming with the fish. But in the past two years, guided trips have proven especially popular. "By my second year, business jumped 300 percent," says Catherine Temple of Paradise Sound Adventure Tours, which started the salmon excursions in 1997. "Last year it went up another 300 percent. And this year it will be even bigger."
From July through October, Temple runs two trips a day, packing her clients into a van and whisking them three miles upriver, providing mini-seminars on marine biology along the way. At different times of the year, the Campbell hosts all five species of Pacific salmon: chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink—and even the odd Atlantic salmon escaped from a nearby fish farm. Chinooks can get as big as 60 pounds, which up close can be "kind of scary," says Temple, since many of her clients are seeing these fish in situ for the first time. "A lot of people are surprised to find out there's more than one species," she says. "Most of them have only ever seen a salmon on their plate."
July will be rush hour on the Campbell, as the river swells with some 165,000 pinks. But this kind of tourism is harmless to the fish, maintains Dave Ewart, a manager for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. "As long as we don't have hundreds of people floating down the river every day, we'll be fine," he says. As for the clients, despite low water temperatures, brisk currents, and occasionally dangerous rapids, little has gone wrong—except for a 1999 mishap when a startled fish smacked a guide in the face. "Yeah," says Temple, winding up for the inevitable fish joke. "He got socked in the eye by a sockeye."