Photos: Diving for delicacies

One man braves frigid Alaskan seas to harvest sea cucumbers.

  • Sea cucumber diver Mike Sallee, left, and his tender, Peter Jacob, eat bowls of spaghetti in the warm and dry cabin of the K2, Sallee's fishing boat, in Nutkwa Inlet off the western coast of Prince of Wales Island. The pair searches for giant red sea cucumbers (Parastichopus californicus) throughout Southeast Alaska.

  • Sallee razes stray facial hairs that might prevent his diving mask from creating a seal from the frigid ocean. As tender, Jacob works above water to ensure Sallee's success below the surface.

  • A splash disrupts the calm of Traitors Cove when Sallee begins his dive.

  • Sallee is an extremely experienced diver and takes risks to maximize his catch. After hauling up a bag of sea cucumbers for Jacob to process, he sometimes chooses to return to the depths many times with few breaks that would minimize residual effects of nitrogen in his body.

  • Before the K2, Sallee dove from the Kelp Cutter, a 20-foot aluminum craft that lacked a cabin, and before that, a 16-foot fiberglass skiff with no winch assist for lifting bags of cucumbers out of the water. On the skiff, Sallee worked without a tender. The approach bewildered other divers on bigger boats and fed the legend of "Iron Mike".

  • Sallee begins a 60-foot descent to the bottom of Naha Bay, as deep as divers will typically go for cucumbers. Although the depth is by no means extreme in the scuba world, going deeper could mean a less efficient harvest.

  • While Sallee is underwater, Jacob finds company in the wildlife that fills the Alexander Archipelago. A large pod of humpback whales swim past the K2 in Hetta Inlet, preparing for its annual migration to Hawaii.

  • Southeast Alaska is notorious for its copious precipitation. A trip on the K2 in the winter means diving in cold rain and snow, motivating Sallee and Jacob to quickly complete their work.

  • Although separated by the surface of the ocean, Sallee and Jacob are dependent on each other to do their jobs. Jacob unloads a bag laden with Sallee's yield on the deck of the K2 to begin processing the cucumbers.

  • With the swipe of a small kitchen knife, Jacob eviscerates each cucumber of the salty, gelatinous contents of their bodies. All that remains is a flopping husk of muscle and tissue, an edible delicacy that is exported, most often to China.

  • Sallee lives in a small cabin next to a lodge he caretakes with his wife, a 20 minute skiff ride from the road system in Ketchikan. Before a local opening, he prepares his dry suit and rain gear for unpredictable conditions below and above the surface of the ocean.

  • Sallee, his wife, Susan Walsh, and two of their three Great Pyrenees walk on the dock to their cabin in Chaikin Cove at high tide. Sallee says he will continue harvest diving as long as there is a sea cucumber fishery and climate change doesn't bring on undiveable weather.


 

In nearly every marine habitat on the planet lurks a creature, slimy and silent, crawling and drifting from one meal of dirt and algae to the next. Imagine an ordinary garden-variety cucumber, place it on the floor of the ocean and give it little spikes. Behold! A sea cucumber. 

Perhaps their unique texture is to blame for keeping sea cucumbers off the American mainstream dinner table, but in Southeast Asia, they are enough of a delicacy to support an industry across the Pacific Ocean in Southeast Alaska.

Mike Sallee, 70, is one of the nearly 200 divers in the region commercially fishing for sea cucumbers, specifically the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus). Sallee is known for his toughness in a profession that requires spending hours outside in frigid water and bad weather. Other divers sometimes refer to him as “Iron Mike.”

Sallee combs coastal seafloors wearing full scuba gear and carrying a mesh bag. On a good dive, he can gather as many as 150 pounds of sea cucumbers before returning to his boat, the K2. Sallee has followed the ups and downs of the sea cucumber harvest since the fishery began in 1987, the last three years with Peter Jacob, 26, onboard as his tender. Working together, they explore the nooks and crannies of the extensive Alexander Archipelago, on the hunt for the squishy sea creatures. Sallee then brings the sea cucumbers to a local fish processing plant, which exports the product. -Sam Wilson