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