Epic Drone Footage of Alaska’s Sockeye Salmon, For Science

This video has been circulating around the fishing world recently, so we started to wonder how it was made and who made it. A few emails later, we met Jason Ching.

Jason Ching is a professional photographer and environmental researcher currently employed by the University of Washington to assist in their Alaska Salmon Program. He uses his photographic talent for educational and environmental outreach. His work has been featured in many environmental campaigns, including various films by the NRDC. We saw this video, and sent Jason and email with some questions. Here is what he had to say.

Where are you from and how did you get involved in salmon research/ photography?

I was born and raised here in Seattle, Washington. I grew up in a family of fishermen and my brother and I have always had a fascination with the outdoors. Eventually I turned my love of nature into a career, I attended the University of Washington where I obtained a degree in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, and transitioned into the position I have today as a Research Scientist with the Alaska Salmon Program. My passion for the visual arts, which has always existed, eventually put a camera in my hands and ever since I have been involving myself with as much nature photography and filmmaking as I can.

Drone shot, Knutson Bay, Iliamna

I have to assume you’re a fisherman. Fly or spin?

I do a bit of both, but I would categorize myself as a spin guy mostly. Similarly, as I have dedicated much of my time and money into photography, my brother, who is two years older than me, has dedicated much of his life to Pacific Northwest fishing, learning and understanding techniques, as well as amassing a small sporting goods shop worth of gear. During the fall we are often on his boat chasing salmon around Puget Sound, come spring we are going after halibut and other bottom fish off the coast and in the summer we go after Albacore (I am in Alaska most of the summer, but I usually manage to swing back home just in time to catch one of the last tuna outings of the season). Certainly if I am not behind a camera during the weekend here in Washington, you can bet I’m on the boat with my brother. Other than the little bit of fly fishing I do while I am up in Alaska, without my brother I wouldn’t do much fishing around home in Washington.

Tell us about one of your stranger days on the water.

During the summer, weather permitting, I spend every day in a boat or in waders, usually both. I’ve seen a lot of interesting things while on the water, from a porcupine swimming around in Lake Iliamna to catching the Northern Lights from our boat in the middle of the big lake. To me though, bears always keep things interesting in Alaska. This last field season in August 2015, I saw one of probably the stranger bear activities I’ve seen in my history of coming up to Alaska.

We were headed out to Flat Island, one of many islands that dot the east end of Lake Iliamna, but unique in that it has a population of spawning sockeye salmon. Upon anchoring on the island we noticed that it had looked like a excavator had come through and torn up the tundra and trees in about a  15 foot radius on the beach. It was really impressive, about a 5 foot mound of moss, dirt, bushes and tree limbs. We came to the conclusion that it had to have been a bear cache – we’d seen similar, but much smaller bear caches before. Determined to get a photo of the earth-moving critter I came back later with a trail camera and one of my camera traps, set them up on the island and let them sit for a few days. When I had returned to check on the cameras I found both of them completely buried in the bear cache. Most of my photographs were of nothing but bear mayhem and dirt, but luckily I managed to get one decent shot of the bear in the end.

Bear on Flat Island Camera Trap Bear, Iliamna

What are some of the techniques you use to capture your images?

I have a handful of techniques that I like to use to capture images in Alaska and Washington.

There’s of course the UAS (unmanned aircraft system A.K.A. drone) which I have had experience with for three years now. Last summer my UAS came everywhere with me in Alaska since we started using it for a research based pilot study, testing to see if we could use it to count salmon on spawning grounds. This was great for me because it allowed me to gather about 12 hours of aerial sockeye salmon footage which I eventually turned into the video “Above Iliamna.”

Another technique I like to use is camera trapping. My good friend Jonny Armstrong, who puts out amazing camera trap shots got me into the scene back in 2012. Essentially I try to track down a likely critter spot, create an outdoor studio consisting of a DSLR, a few strobes/flashes, and have it all connected and set to a motion trigger. This has to be one of my favorite forms of photography as it yields some of the most powerful wildlife imagery in my opinion.

Lastly, I love being underwater snapping fish pictures. I always have felt the most connected to nature when I am underwater. If the salmon are in, I am often itching to get in the water and stay in for as long as there’s time or just before I go completely numb. I use a compact surf housing for my camera which is often coupled with a Retra UWT remote trigger for my underwater work. The remote trigger allows me to hold further away from my camera (so I don’t spook the fish as much) and snap pictures as I see fish pass in front of my camera. I do take a lot of handheld shots as well, but without the trigger it would be impossible for me to get some of my pictures, something my photo buddy Morgan Bond knows all to well.

Sockeye school, Iliamna

Knutson Crk, Iliamna

A lot of people look at your job and think, wow, what a great lifestyle. Should they be jealous?

I think I have a fantastic job, and work with some amazing people, but what folks should realize is that what you see in my photos and videos from Alaska accounts for about a quarter of my job. The other 75% of my job is primarily about handling and processing samples, entering in data and taking care of a portion the logistics behind running and maintaining a field station in remote Alaska. So although I get to have a great time fully immersed in wild Alaska for a solid three months out of the year, the rest of the time I am back in Seattle most certainly in front of a computer or behind a microscope, and I think that’s where most people would consider the job to be less fun and certainly less exciting. However, I find it enjoyable and most rewarding to be involved with the research every step of the way, from sample collection, to sample processing, and finally seeing that data get used in a scientific report or paper to further our understanding about our natural world.

What’s next for Jason Ching?

As an amateur hobbyist I would certainly like to get more involved in environmental filmmaking and photography at more of a professional level, and balance out my interests between natural sciences and the visual arts. I think it would be amazing to be able to get involved in creating visuals for a variety of subjects on the environment, document other people’s research and conservation efforts. In the meantime I will keep on documenting the natural world wherever I am, and continue to communicate and hopefully inspire others to share an appreciation for nature and our environment.

Check out Jason’s website.