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Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour On The Aleutian Ballad

A crew member holding an Alaskan king crab

The Aleutian Ballad made history when a 60-foot rogue wave hit it in season two of Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” While the crab fishing boat was severely damaged, it was repaired and later refitted to allow travelers to enjoy the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s Tour in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Rated as Ketchikan’s number one shore excursion year after year, Brian and I eagerly awaited this anticipated tour on our Cunard 10-day Alaska cruise.

During the three-hour tour, you’ll learn the ropes of crab fishing, hear life stories in the Bering Sea, and get up close and personal with the ship’s catch.

Now, if you’re fearful of getting seasick, don’t worry. The Aleutian Ballad sails the calm seas in the protected waters of Annette Island. Far from the rough waters up north, the tour gets its name from the crew, who are all former crab fishermen from the Bering Sea.

From Fishing Vessel To Touring Boat

After the fishing vessel was severely damaged, it retired from the Bering Sea. Dave Lethin, a former Bering Sea crab fisherman, had the vision to turn it into a tour vessel. Eight months later, his dream came true after spending USD 2.5 million to retrofit the ship.

While the boat still has some fishing equipment, it’s a far cry from a Bering Sea boat, with its stadium seating and overhead heaters.

The vessel was ingeniously retrofitted to provide good views from all seats and is even wheelchair accessible. Guests can choose to sit downstairs or on the upper deck. Docked at Ketchikan cruise port area, it’s the ideal tour for those who can’t walk far.

Aleutian Ballad tour boat docked in Ketchikan
The Aleutian Ballad docked in Ketchikan next to a cruise ship

Inside are modern bathrooms, a gift shop carrying Bering Sea merchandise, and a kitchen selling drinks and snacks.

What To Wear On The Tour

As the rainiest city in America, Ketchikan receives some sort of precipitation 230+ days of the year. So, pack the right clothing for your Alaska adventure. A raincoat and sweater is recommended, especially if you’re sitting on the upper deck. 

Check the weather forecast, and depending on the expected temperature, you could also need a sweater.

The lower deck is covered and heated, so you don’t need waterproof shoes, even if it’s raining. Ideally, you want to have a camera, and preferably a digital camera with a fast shutter speed, instead of a smartphone.

The 107-foot Aleutian Ballad docks next to the cruise ships in port. So, if you book this thrilling excursion, you won’t need to walk far to board. 

As a tour boat, she can carry up to 150 guests and usually runs one tour a day during the Alaska cruise season. Tour times vary depending on the cruise ship schedules. Since this is Ketchikan’s number one tour, purchase your tickets before your cruise to prevent disappointment.

On our tour day, it drizzled in the morning but it didn’t stop us from doing a stroll around Ketchikan. Then, we returned to our ship for a quick buffet lunch before the crab boat tour.

Life In The Bering Sea

As we sail out from Ketchikan, Captain Dave starts narrating a crab fisherman’s life. The cold, sea ice buildup, rough seas, and the dangers of the job. No wonder it’s considered one of the world’s deadliest jobs.

A fisherman with a large king crab on the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's tour in Ketchikan, Alaska

Once, he abandoned ship and floated in the frigid water in a survival suit, waiting for someone to rescue him.

It’s a humbling story; he was one of the lucky ones. Some who go out to sea don’t come back. Lethin has lost 36 friends to the job. During the tour, the crew takes turns explaining the vessel’s equipment.

The crab traps are heavy. Some weigh 700 lbs, and when thrown overboard, they sink rapidly. If you’re caught in the rope attached to it, you’re a goner. Crabbers learn not to walk but shuffle their feet to avoid getting caught in ropes.

During much of the storytelling, guests must remain in their seats. However, we were often invited to the front to touch the sea life, see giant crabs in their large aquarium, and take tons of photos. The interaction with guests is what makes this tour so unique.

They demonstrated loading hooks with bait as we sailed to the marine-rich waters. They used herring and squid and showed us different types of fishing hooks. The baited hooks are dropped in the water and retrieved the next day.

At the drop point, they bring up the hooks left from the day before. During our tour, they brought up rockfish and ratfish, but the catch can differ daily. Whatever they catch is returned to the sea.

Fishing Around Annette Island

On route to the crab trap locations, we passed a few fishing vessels owned by the local tribes. We stopped to observe as one boat was hauling in its nets. When asked what they catch in the Alaskan waters, they said they could bring in a variety of fish, shellfish, wolf eels, and jellyfish.

Since the jellyfish are the stinging variety, the crew was covered from head to toe in waterproof protective gear. They apparently caught mostly jellies from the white marks of the fishing net.

With no significant number of fish, they released the catch into the water, and they would put out the nets to try again. They would repeat this process many times throughout the day.

The Crab Pots

Annette Island is a private reservation, and commercial fishing is banned within 3,000 feet of shore. However, Captain Dave has an agreement with the Metlakatla Indian Tribe, which allows him to fish as long as the catch is released.

On route, the crew spotted a humpback whale near the shore. While we couldn’t get close because it was feeding in the shallows, we could see a flume of mist as it surfaced and its back and tail as it sunk beneath the water’s surface.

I suggest a whale-watching excursion in Juneau if you want to see whales. Not only will you see whales, but sea lions and bald eagles too.

Pulling up a crab pot
Pulling up a circular crab pot

The Aleutian Ballad sails to predetermined points where they previously laid traps. The first, a large circular crab pot, was filled with various crab species. Once they secured the pot, we were invited to the front to hold them and take pictures. 

The crabs varied from the prized snow crab and box crab to the Dungeness and rock crab. I found the rock crab unusual and literally looked like a textured rock. The crew instructed us to hold them differently to avoid being pinched.

They also pulled prawns and other crabs from their “live” tank for guests to hold. The tanks contained a smorgasbord of sea life. One had giant King crabs that were about six years old. Another tank had shrimp, prawns, sea cucumbers, and hermit crabs.

For many guests, this was their first encounter with sea creatures outside a seafood restaurant. Being able to touch and examine crabs and other sea creatures added to the tour’s excitement.

The crabs are kept in the traps for a few days and shown to guests during the tours. Then, they’re released into the ocean.

Catching King Crab

Crab fishermen catch Alaskan King crab in the Bering Sea during fall and winter. A crab boat like the Aleutian Ballad carries over 150 large traps made of steel and nylon mesh. Since the Aleutian Ballad has been retrofitted for the tour, it has only a few large traps.

During the tour, the crew pulls up a 700 lb rectangle trap onto the boat. But since it isn’t King crab season, it’s filled with rubber crabs. In the Bering Sea, crabs would be sorted. The fishermen would return the females and those too small to the sea.

The deckhands show us the monstrous King crabs from the live aquarium. We can’t hold these, probably due to the possibility of injuries.

I was captivated by their immense size, and I chuckled as they used their long legs to try to escape the tank.

A crew member holds up a 6-year-old Alaskan king crab
A 6-year-old Alaskan king crab

If you love crab, you can purchase crab legs for USD 39.99 on board. A bargain compared to Tracy’s Crab Shack in Juneau, which charges more than double that amount.

After the large crab trap was returned to the sea, they pulled up barrel pots. From it, they pull out Mr. Slimy, a giant octopus weighing more than 30 lbs. He also spends a few days in the trap before returning to the ocean.

Mesmerized by what we had already learned, touched, and seen, we didn’t think the tour could get any better, but the best was yet to come.

Eagles, Eagles, And More Eagles

Ketchikan’s deadliest catch tour features the best eagle viewing globally if you want to see bald eagles on your Alaska cruise. Pulling up to a forested area along the shoreline, dozens of bald eagles waited patiently for an easy meal.

They obviously knew we were coming. We were told to gather at the side of the vessel and have our cameras ready.

As the crew threw herring pieces into the water, about two dozen eagles swooped down from the trees to grab the fish. They were fast and sometimes flew so close to each other that I was amazed there wasn’t a mid-air collision.

Bald eagle in flight
A bald eagle in flight

There was silence from the crowd for about ten minutes, only broken by the sound of camera shutters clicking continuously. One of the crew joked that we must be doing something wrong if we didn’t get a good picture or two.

Watching the gracefulness of the eagles could only be described as aerial ballet. With a wing span of over six feet, they flapped their wings elegantly before coming in for the snatch.

Using the talons on one foot, they’d retrieve the herring and head back to the trees. Once the free food stopped flying, the eagles immediately retreated to the trees to save their energy.

But the moment a fish was thrown, the eagles started their feeding frenzy again. I was astonished by their speed and accuracy.

A bald eagle ready to retrieve a fish
A bald eagle ready to retrieve a fish

For us and most of the tour-goers, the eagle feeding was the highlight of the Bering Sea Crab Fishermen’s tour. Even though we have nesting bald eagles where we live, this was the icing on the cake. I could have quite honestly watched those eagles for hours.

More Photos

On our way back to Ketchikan, the photo opportunities continued. We were free to walk around and go upstairs to enjoy the scenic landscape.

Then the crew brought down the Aleutian Ballad life preserver and allowed all guest to take their selfies with the team. If you haven’t already taken enough shots, the staff were happy to fish out creatures from the live tank for more photo opportunities.

Selfie with the Aleutian Ballad crew
Selfie with the Aleutian Ballad crew

Although this tour was just over three hours, it felt much longer. The educational elements, crew storytelling, and interactive experience made it one of the best tours I’ve enjoyed on six cruises to Alaska. 

For reference, I’ve been whale watching a few times, glacier dog sledding, the White Pass and Yukon Route train, e-bikes, Mendenhall Glacier, and rafting tours.

If you’re cruising to Alaska cheaply, this might not be the tour for you at over USD 200 per person. However, if you’re seeking a thrilling adventure suitable for all members of your family, I can’t recommend this excursion enough.

For my husband, Brian, and I, it was the pinnacle of our Alaska cruise with Cunard, and we wouldn’t hesitate to do the tour again.

Happy travels ~ Karen

Crab fisherman on the Aleutian Ballad, Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's tour in Ketchikan


Wednesday 17th of August 2022

Absolutely love this tour in May and yes it was by far the best excursion of the trip. I got some of the most amazing pictures of the eagles diving for chub and holding the catch was scary but fulfilling. I highly recommend the excursion at any cost. Make the time and enjoy. I wish I was able to post the videos of the diving eagles.

Forever Karen

Wednesday 17th of August 2022

It's great to hear you enjoyed this excursion as much as we did. My husband took lots of videos while I did all the still photos. This tour exceeded my more expensive one dog sledding on a glacier and we wouldn't hesitate to go again.