The Swimming Dead: Videos of Zombie Fish

By Patrick Cooney

Like an underwater horror show, I filmed dead fish swimming amongst the living last week in a coastal river of western Washington.  Or at least, the zombie fish looked like they were dead.

Nowhere is the “Circle of Life” more apparent than in a river during salmon spawning season.  Years after leaving the comforts of freshwater as a juvenile fish for a massive journey to the ocean, adult salmon return to the exact same stretch of stream where they were born in order to spawn and die.  That’s right…one and done.  Swimming back into freshwater is a one way ticket for salmon.  Those fish lucky enough to make it to the spawning grounds are often on the edge of death, with flesh rotting from their bodies and bones protruding from fins.

In the process of swimming upriver, the radical transformations that salmon go through are nothing shy of remarkable.  The jaws on males extend into large hooks, called kypes, with rows of sharp teeth to fight off other male challengers.  Additionally, they change color from their oceanic shiny silver phase into deep reds or abstract streaks of blacks and purples, like an artist tripped and spilled their palette.  Their flesh and muscle begin to soften and deteriorate as they jump waterfalls, fight river currents, and rub on rocks.

Salmon metamorphose as they migrate from saltwater into freshwater to spawn.
Salmon metamorphose as they migrate from saltwater into freshwater to spawn (Graphic: Cooney; Art: Tomelleri)

A portion of the migrating salmon will die along the route and will never make it to the spawning grounds.  The bodies of the fallen end up littering the bottom of the river with dead carcasses that decompose their ocean derived nutrients and energy into the freshwater environment.

So, the next time you turn on the television or go to a movie and zombies are the central theme, you can share the truth with your friends.  The living dead do exist, they have made a long journey across the ocean and up the river, and all they want to do is spawn.

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