Man vs. Nature: Crab Fishing in the Bering Sea

When Alaskan king crab season begins each winter, hundreds of fishermen descend upon Dutch Harbor, Alaska. It's a race against time, in dangerous conditions, to catch as many crabs as possible.

If the fishermen are successful, they can bring in millions of dollars worth of crabs, but if they aren't, they will barely cover their expenses, and worst of all, crew members may get hurt or even die.

The Discovery Channel's television series about crab fishing in the Bering Sea is one reality show in which reality is real: everything from the mishaps, the disasters and the haul of cash from the ocean.

It's not just about catching crab. Good storytelling requires interesting characters, and "Deadliest Catch" has a cast Hollywood couldn't invent.

There's Capt. Sig Hansen and his brother, deck boss Edgar Hansen. Phil Harris, the Hillstrand brothers and Keith Colburn round out the team with nearly 100 years of Alaskan fishing experience among them.

The cameras roll while they work the deck at 20 degrees below zero, when they eat, when they are sleepless for days, and when a rogue wave hits the ship in the middle of the night.

They know the cameras are there, but with the cold, the danger and the exhaustion, they stop caring.

Sea Stars

Now into their fourth season on television, these otherwise anonymous fishing captains and their crews have become rock stars of the sea.

"I'm the guy everybody wants to do a shot with. I go into a bar and I get 30 or 40 shots," Jonathan Hillstrand said.

"A lot of women, they'll watch the show, then they'll look at their husband and say, 'What the hell's your problem?'" Harris said.

Even rock stars know them.

"When we were in Vegas, me and my wife, right -- there's a guy, he's getting all these autographs and chicks are getting pictures with him. And it was Vince Neal from Motley Crue. I shake his hand and he looks at me and says, 'Captain Sig.' The guy jumps out of his skin," Hansen said.

But unlike any other television show, if one of these guys gets killed out of the plot, it would be for real.

They all know fishermen who have died. When a boat sank, cameras were with the Coast Guard for a rescue that recovered only one man. The survivor spoke while sitting next to the body of a crewmate. It's about physical stamina and character under pressure.

"A lot of guys that come up there just looking for an adventure, don't succeed. Guys that come up there just looking for the money usually don't make it," Colburn said. "They need a little bit of everything to really make it and want to do it. That's really hard to find, actually."

Filming Under Dangerous Conditions

It's Shakespeare on the sea, brother against brother. It's deckhands competing for jobs and money. And it's about the weather: Waves the size of office buildings, snow and ice that builds so thick it'll turn a boat upside down.

And always, it's about guys who are willing to do this.

"Fishing's a blast, man," Hansen said.

His brother was quick to qualify, "Well, pain is misery."

"Look," Hansen said. "We're lucky to be dumb enough not to know any better, so if that's all you know, you make it fun. And if you can't have fun doing it, don't do it."

The show puts two cameramen on a ship where there's not much room for two extra men. One of them showed where he slept, under the wheelhouse stairs with the coffee cans.

They use lockdown cameras for wide shots, point-of-view cameras strapped to the equipment, while the cameramen roam the wheelhouse and the deck.

So, the cameras were there when a deckhand mashed his finger and when another broke his ankle. They were also there when Edgar Hansen was hit in the head with a swinging steel hook.

"So, I had everybody in my viewfinder, and when that happened, I'm right on Edgar when he dropped to the ground, so it really worked out well that time," cameraman Eric Lange said. "Always keep rolling, always keep rolling."

Fishermen Until the End

People watch the show and think they know these guys.

Harris says, "That's what people most of the time think, at least for me, that I'm always mad. And I'm never mad and I never yell."

That got a big laugh from his fellow captains and Sig Hansen, who added, "And we never drink!"

They do have a natural charm. Women are after them now, and so are advertisers. Harris has his own brand of coffee now, called "Deadliest Blend."

As for Hansen, he's been approached by a mattress company. "They wanted me to do a mattress commercial, and I said no way. I'm not going to do a mattress commercial," he said.

Colburn chuckled, "Why would they have a fisherman who's never in his bunk ... I don't get that."

Their lives have been changed, but their lives are also the same. One thing they know for certain: Just like good years of fishing, and bad, all this attention will one day end. Then it will be back to the Bering Sea, where once again, they will be the only ones watching.

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