Written By: Shauna Lee, Chief Operations Office, Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour
The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour finds its home in Ketchikan, Alaska, the first city along Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. The tour takes place aboard the legendary boat, the “Aleutian Ballad”, made famous on season 2 of the Discovery Channel program, “The Deadliest Catch”. The crew, some featured on the television program, are all seasoned crab fishermen and all have decades of experience hauling 1000 pound pots over the side of a boat as they are tossed and turned in 30 foot seas. These are the men that stories are written about.
The tour was the brainchild of Capt. David Lethin, a seasoned veteran of Bering Sea crabbing, the owner of the Aleutian Ballad and five other working fishing boats. Capt. Lethin found himself on the pier in Ketchikan back in the late 80’s and watched as guests disembarked cruise ships by the thousands. He saw a small charter boat standing by to receive guests and asked the captain, ‘what are you doing today?’ The charter boatman replied that he was taking guests out in the bay to show them the view of Ketchikan from the water. David was shocked! They’d just arrived by ship, they’d sailed along the waterfront of Ketchikan already and in his mind, they would be missing the best part of Alaska; the ocean life below them. As a fisherman, David had a love for the ocean that went further than what he could pull up from its depths. It did give him a livelihood but it also gave him a life! The smell of the salty air, the amazing aquatic creatures that lived below the waves, and the sense of peace that can only be known floating atop a glassy calm ocean, miles from shore. This is what people should be seeing, he thought.
That day began a dream that would take decades to come to fruition. He would tell his fellow fisherman that one day he’d like to turn a Bering Sea crab boat into a tour boat, show people what it’s really like to be an Alaskan fisherman and show them how all the different fisheries worked. They told him he was crazy – but he never gave up. His family told him he was crazy – but he never gave up. And by 2007, he was ready to make his dream a reality, ignoring all the naysayers, believing in his vision, and forging ahead like he had done so many times before. He sketched out some plans, budgeted $800,000 and figured it would take about 4 months to bring his vision to life.
8 months and 2.8 million dollars later, the Aleutian Ballad was reborn as a world class tour boat. While the coast guard never seemed to mind what condition the boat was in when it was headed to the fishing grounds, once they heard it would be taking guests aboard, their standards changed. 20 water tight compartments and more safety features than a modern day aircraft, the Aleutian Ballad got a complete overhaul and was launched into the 21st century. All the character of the crab fishing vessel remained and was still functional but now, comfortable stadium seats with overhead heating, wheelchair accessibility, high end restrooms, a giant on-board aquarium and a shiny new galley store were also aboard.
Some people wonder why the tour is called, “The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour”, when it takes place in Ketchikan, Alaska, 1200 miles from the Bering Sea. The reason is, the crew are all Bering Sea crab fishermen and this tour is more about them than you’d expect. There’s nothing quite like a fisherman when it comes to storytelling and the crew aboard the Aleutian Ballad are masters of this craft. Each has dozens of personal, poignant or humorous tales that they share with the guests. Whether it’s about the time one was thrown from a boat, landing in the icy Bering Sea in 15 foot waves, or the time one captain almost sank his boat, threatening the lives of his entire crew – they share stories that move people, bringing some guests to tears. This is the unexpected and intangible part of this tour that makes it different from any other in the world. People become immersed in the lives of the fishermen in a way that touches hearts and creates bonds that are not only surprising for the guests, the fishermen are changed by it as well.
One fisherman said, “the first time I told the story about having to abandon ship, floating in the ocean with just a buoy to keep me afloat in the 30 degree water, I cried. I had told the story to other fisherman hundreds of times but on that day, looking into the eyes of the guests who were just astonished that I’d survived, I realized, it was astonishing! I am so lucky to just be alive and it really hadn’t hit be like that before. I cried like a baby and they cried right along with me.” Moments like that happen every day aboard the Aleutian Ballad and it’s just a bonus to what the guests get to actually see while on board.
Alaskan sea life is plentiful. Crabs, ling cod, octopus, halibut, prawns, sea stars, rockfish and so much more, are pulled aboard and placed in a live tank on the deck of the boat. Guests are able to see, up close and personal, the amazing life that lives below the waves of the Pacific Ocean. The crew share their extensive knowledge of the different species and how they fit into the circle of ocean life. Long line fishing, octopus barrel fishing, shrimp pots and several varieties of crab pots are all baited and demonstrated for guests. The catch is examined and appreciated and then released back to the wild. For some guests, the only seafood they’ve ever seen is on their dinner plate. To see the methods used to bring that catch to the table is fascinating and enlightening for all. And sometimes, if the whales are in a good mood, a few may put on a great show, breaching the water line, slapping their tales and giving guests a once in a lifetime moment.
In addition to life below the waves, there is plenty of life above the waves in Alaska! Bears, minks and marten are often seen on the shoreline but one of the highlights with the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour is not crabs… it’s eagles. The tour takes guests to a secluded inlet off Annette Island, a native reserve and home to hundreds, if not thousands, of American bald eagles. This island, home to the Metlakatla Indian tribe, is lush green wilderness, transected by streams bursting with salmon in mid-summer and the feeding ground for these magnificent birds. As the boat quietly floats near the shore, 50 to 75 eagles will swarm the shoreline, like mosquitoes on a hot summer day, the air is filled with them as they dive and swoop for fish. Many guests will list this as their favorite part of the tour and it’s no surprise. It is rare to see an American bald eagle from 100 yards away, but to see one within arm’s reach of you, wings spanning up to 8 feet across, talons at the ready to clutch a fish – it is, in a word, breathtaking.
The tour takes just three hours from dock to dock, and it is among the highest rated tours, not just in Alaska, but in the world. In addition to the obvious reason; sea life, eagles, fishermen’s stories and the incredible Alaskan scenery, one of the most mentioned features of the tour that guests comment on is the customer service. The Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour is a family run business and you can bet that on any given day, at least a few of the crew will be related. When guests are welcomed aboard they are considered family and are treated in kind. While the salty crew are busy fishing and sharing stories, the “galley girls” are making sure that all the guests are comfortable and happy. Insulated jackets are brought out on chilly days, warm cups of cocoa are poured in the galley, and assistance in taking family photos are just the norm aboard this vessel. The boat is 100% wheelchair accessible and the “galley girls” give special care and attention to guests with special needs to ensure that they have the full fishing experience. The crew always go above and beyond to please their guests just as they would welcome family into their homes. It is no wonder that some guests return, year after year, and are always welcomed back with a warm hug and a smile.
So much is packed into this three-hour tour! Sea life, stories, eagles, laughs and perhaps some tears, all culminate into a once in a lifetime experience. Nowhere else on the planet can guests sail aboard a real Bering Sea crab boat alongside real Bering Sea fishermen and luckily, it happens in the calm and protected waters of Southeast, Alaska. No fear of seasickness aboard the Aleutian Ballad! It’s smooth sailing with a highly experienced crew.
Since taking their first guests aboard in 2008, this tour has won, “Tour of the Year”, with Princess Cruises each year. It is a signature tour aboard Disney Cruise Lines, and is a tour of distinction for Norwegian Cruises, Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises. Trip Advisor rates it as the number one tour in Ketchikan based on user generated feedback and is considered one of the top ten tours in the world for Holland America Cruise Line.