Islander Kelly Keenan was a 2012 star Vashon-Maury Island salmon watcher—logging 30 hours observing and taking photos and video of the iconic fish. A native Texan, Keenan moved to Vashon six years ago and was drawn to nature, especially the orcas. A longtime photographer, her photos are used by local agencies to help identify individual whales. And so it was a natural extension for her to become interested in salmon, the orcas’ main food source.
During their time along upper Judd Creek last year, Keenan and her kids, Mallory, 8, and Gavin, 5, captured stunning photos and video of coho building redds, mating and protecting their territory. Keenan was also uncannily good at finding salmon carcasses.
"I’d be walking by and a fishy smell would waft by my nose, and sure enough it would lead me to a carcass—I felt like a tracking dog," she says. Keenan was also able to get unusually close to the fish, which never seemed to spook as she moved in for a close-up. In the middle of the salmon watching season last fall, Keenan learned she was pregnant, and muses that her strong sense of smell and ability to commune with the mother salmon wasn’t an accident. "I was spawning as they were spawning," she says laughing.
Spending so much time with the coho, Keenan began to research salmon behavior and spent so much time creek-side that she could easily pick out redds (salmon nests), and got to know individual fish and where they would be along the creek. She was surprised by the aggressiveness of both males and the females as they fought to protect their genetic future.
"Twice I saw a female run off another female from a redd site—more aggressively than a male," she says. "Males slowly got more aggressive; the females immediately tried to bite the other female." The biggest fight she witnessed involved one male grabbing the other in its jaws and throwing it downstream; she also saw one fish lose an eye in such an encounter.
"It’s important for people on the island to know about the salmon," she says. "To know that what they’re washing their cars with, what they’re putting on their garden, what they’re fertilizing their lawn with is all is running off into the streams. What the salmon are ingesting is what we’re ingesting when we eat them. This is a great way for people to see for themselves and get interested, and be more inclined to take care of their environment."
This fall Keenan is back at Judd Creek, introducing her family’s newest salmon watcher, three-month-old Brody, to the joys and mysteries of the experience. Though they haven’t spotted a salmon yet, she is looking forward to the day they do, and meanwhile reported that she and her family recently found a signal crayfish, another native of local creeks.
"It’s just nice to get out and go for a walk in the beautiful forest, and listen to the sounds of trees and the water," Keenan says. "I want my kids to experience this because I didn’t grow up with all this nature around me, and I didn’t realized how much I loved it until I moved here."