ANCHORAGE - A crab boat captain who gained fame on the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" series and fortune in the Bering Sea is attracting a steady stream of fans who can watch him haul in crab pots from the relatively calmer waters of Southeast Alaska.
Since April 28, David Lethin and his crew aboard the 107-foot Aleutian Ballad have been taking daily trips out of Ketchikan with an average of more than 100 passengers who get to watch the crew fish and harvest, and sometimes even hold the catch.
Things got a little interesting one day, when a middle-aged female passenger got so excited at the 80-pound octopus in the holding tank that she reached in when the crew wasn't looking and picked it up, said Danene Lethin, the captain's wife and co-owner of the venture.
Normally the passengers would be handed smaller sea life, like starfish, hermit crabs, sea urchins and even small dog sharks to touch, she said. Nobody was injured though, and everyone had a good laugh, she said.
"People are coming to Alaska, the Last Frontier," she said. "If you are coming for the adventure, why not experience it? And there are a lot of kids who come on board. What better experience than to be an aquarium where they can touch the animals."
Passengers also get to see lots of eagles, humpback and killer whales, and porpoises.
David Lethin last fished the Bering Sea in 2004, a season where he fished through five hurricanes.
"This is less deadly, and it's so much fun to share with the tourists," said Danene Lethin, who said she is glad to have him at home more of the year in Astoria, Ore., with their two teen-aged daughters.
Most of the visitors are cruise ship customers, but the tours are open to anyone.
Visitors are welcomed aboard the remodeled Aleutian Ballad, which can accommodate up to 150 visitors on the upper and lower decks, out of the way of working crew, but in clear sight of their activities.
In the heated comfort of sheltered observation areas, the visitors have a clear view of the crew launching and retrieving crab pots weighing 700 pounds each. The vessel moves through the fishing grounds offshore of the Metlakatla Indian community on Annette Island.
The Metlakatla Indians have agreed to the joint venture in which they are compensated for every individual who comes aboard the Aleutian Ballad, because the vessel brings them into Metlakatla waters.
A bonus is that when local residents, whom Lethin describes as some of the best salmon fishermen in Alaska, are hauling in their catch, the Aleutian Ballad can pull up alongside so guests can watch and photograph the salmon fishery, too.
For the premiere season, which began in late July 2007, the tours ran for four hours and cost $189. To allow the visitors a little more time in town, the company decided this year to offer at three and a half hour cruise for a reduced amount of $149.
Since the 2008 season began on April 28, there has been a steady stream of passengers on board. Four days a week the Aleutian Ballad does two tours; the other three days there is one tour.
As the passengers watch, the crew haul in a harvest that ranges from crab to sharks, all of which are returned to the ocean after being photographed in the holding tank.
The crew also regales their guests with tales of the Bering Sea, so intriguing a few of them that they inquire about employment aboard the Aleutian Ballad, but so far, the answer to that question has been no.
"If you don't have Bering Sea experience, you're not coming on my boat," she said. "This is the real deal."