Changes were measured in some of the major physiological variables associated with seawater adaptability, growth and energetics in wild Atlantic salmon Salmo salar smolts and post-smolts migrating from the river and through the estuary, fjord and coastal areas in the River Orkla and the Trondheimsfjord, Norway during late May to early June. Gill Na+,K+-ATPase activity increased to levels of 12-16 ??mol ADP mg protein-1 h -1 in post-smolts caught in higher salinity zones, probably representing long-term levels of Atlantic salmon post-smolts in oceanic conditions. Muscle moisture was regulated within narrow limits (77.7-78.7%) in fish from all zones during both years, suggesting that post-smolts adapt to marine conditions without any long-term disturbance of hydro-mineral balance. Lipid and glycogen content showed a general trend towards depletion from the river, through the fjord and into the ocean. There was, however, no significant change in protein content. The present results confirm that smolts are naturally 'energy deficient' during downstream migration, and suggest that post-smolts also mobilize energy reserves during their early marine phase, while protein is allocated for somatic growth. Plasma growth hormone (GH) levels increased transiently during passage through the estuary and fjord, with lower levels observed in post-smolts caught off-shore, i.e. in fish which were feeding on marine prey and had adapted to the marine environment. These physiological changes may confer substantial selective advantages during the critical early marine phase of anadromous salmonids, and hence are adaptive for long-term survival in sea water. ?? 2003 The Fisheries Society of the British Isles.