Updated Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 09:01 PM
She trod gently, heel to toe, then floated on her belly, like she had done dozens of time before in the water. But this misty November morning was different.
There was Jessica Newley in the middle of Skagit County’s Clark Creek, near the Skagit River, when it happened: a rush of coho salmon, 75 or maybe 100 of them, swimming upstream toward her, brushing up against her dry suit and snorkel, slithering between her arms and legs.
“I didn’t want to leave. It was so exciting, “ said Newley, whose shot was selected as The Seattle Times’ Reader Photo of the Year.
“You’re in the middle of them and their habitat.”
A scuba-diving instructor, Newley’s goal is to shoot the runs of the five Northwest salmon species underwater. She has crossed two off her list — the pink run on the Cascade River and the recent coho run. She is eyeing the chum run by the end of December and the chinook and sockeye runs for next year.
A 26-year-old native of Selah, Yakima County, Newley is finishing her master’s in environmental education at Western Washington University.
She plans to move to the Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) in the spring to work on conservation projects with villagers.
In the last three years, with her husband, Chris, she’s been documenting her diving exploits from the Red Sea off Egypt to the coast of Bali.
Her interest in salmon runs was more recent. While hanging out in a friend’s backyard in Marblemount last fall, she witnessed a pink run in the Cascade River, “their fins cutting through the surface.”
“I knew I had to see this under water.”
She returned a week later with her snorkeling equipment and her Canon 5D Mark III. “It was mind-blowing,” she said, the salmon in their spawning red color framed by the glacial water.
She was hooked. She wanted to see more.
To shoot the photo that later won her a $250 gift card from Kenmore Camera, courtesy of The Seattle Times, Newley got permission to station herself in the water near the Marblemount Fish Hatchery. She had once worked there as a tour guide.
The fish “have to get used to you being there, so you have to move slowly and get into position,” she said.
She was in the water for 20 minutes, her body shaking from the cold. She convinced herself to endure it for a few more minutes and then, “there was a huge group all packed in together. They slowly came by my way. Some were brave enough to brush up against me.”
A few even paused to stare at her.
At one point, “one fish made a fast move and the other fish went into a frenzy, darting everywhere, coming at me and around me. It was such an adrenaline rush.”
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Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times
Jessica Newley, Seattle Times’ Reader Photo of the Year winner, is seen in Clark Creek near Skagit River.