King of the Crabs
Fishing for king crab in Norway’s Arctic north was an unexpected career change for German ex-mechanic Michael Decker. Now, he loves sharing his knowledge with visitors year round.
WORDS MONIQUE CECCATO
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Michael Decker’s dark eyes are only just visible above the mass of tangled king crab legs bundled in his arms. Today’s haul brought in only four of the monstrous bottom feeders but, at two to three kilograms apiece, the catch is more than enough to feed his octet of hungry guests.
“The legs are full of wonderful, juicy meat. But, the best piece is the shoulder muscle – the so-called 'fillet' of the king crab.”
— Michael Decker
Michael Decker swapped a job as a mechanic, and then a 'musher' to catch king crabs on Kirkenes’ King Crab Safari .
“The legs are full of wonderful, juicy meat. But, the best piece is the shoulder muscle – the so-called 'fillet' of the king crab,” he explains with glee as he unloads the crabs onto the stainless steel workbench and begins carefully separating the edible portions from the innards. A mischievous, wry smile and a twinkle in his eye appear as he jests, “Don't throw away the fillet or I’ll certainly remind you that you’re throwing away the best piece. Or, if I’m hungry, I won’t mention it and I’ll disappear into the kitchen and eat it myself!”
King crabs can weigh up to 12 kilograms.
Norwegian king crab is a sought-after delicacy around the world, fetching upwards of $40 AUD per pound upon export. But, they’re not a species that’s endemic to northern Norway’s Finnmark region. In the 1960s, as part of an experiment, Russian scientists introduced the red king crab to the Barents Sea, dropping them in the Murmanskfjord near the Russian-Norwegian border. Now, 60 years on, the crab population in Northern Norway is flourishing, making them synonymous with the cuisine and fishing culture in the area. The protein rich crab meat joins scallops, reindeer, and langoustine as a regular feature on the Norwegian Coastal Express’s regionally sourced à la carte menus. On board, cruisers and diners are also able to scan QR codes on the live tanks, allowing them to pinpoint the exact location where the crustaceans were caught. For those that want a more hands-on experience, the Coastal Express also partners with Snowhotel Kirkenes to take them straight to the source.
On board with Hurtigruten, cruisers can find out more information about a crab, such as where it was caught and how much it weighs.
During the peak winter season, he’s pulling up to 16 crab traps a day, each with a weight of up to 600 pounds.
Brandishing his knife, Decker says with a cheeky smirk: “If you want to know if the king crab is scared of me, I'm sure they are.” The lead tour guide and self-titled ‘King of the Crabs’ on Snowhotel Kirkenes’ King Crab Safari has honed his sense of humour well. Volleying jokes lets his tour clients relax and enjoy the experience, and an upbeat attitude helps Decker deal with the unique daily demands of the job. During the peak winter season, he’s pulling up to 16 crab traps a day, each with a weight of up to 270 kilograms. Throw in the weight of the 150 crabs needed to feed twice the number of touring guests, and it can be backbreaking work. “It’s a very beautiful but also a very tough job,” says Decker, who’s spent the past 11 years living and working in Kirkenes. “You just need to focus on the things you have and not the things you don't have. In general, it helps a lot to think that way, but, especially in the north, it's important.”
Snowhotel Kirkenes is based in the Norway's north-east, not far from the Finnish and Russian borders.
Rustic, igloo-shaped rooms at Snowhotel Kirkenes provide a perfectly cosy spot to retire to after a big day of fishing.
An industrial mechanic by trade, German-born Decker initially made the move to Norway to take up the role of musher (dog sled driver) at Snowhotel Kirkenes. Never did it cross his mind that he could one day hold a king crab, let alone spend his days working with them. Like most, he’d only ever seen the monster crustacean on the Deadliest Catch television series, not fully grasping their true weight and size until beginning his career on the safaris. Now, every time he pulls a pot crawling with crabs in front of an audience, he’s reminded of that same thrill he felt when he first saw one in the flesh. “I had the chance to hold the king crab here for the first time, and I was surprised by it. It's so good to think back, and also to keep your emotions fresh, by reliving that with the people I have on the tours,” he says. Often, it’s not even the sight of the king crab that has the guests agog. “Sometimes, when I'm out with the people on the fjord, you have to say ‘Look, here's the king crab’ and nobody looks at the king crab because there's the aurora dancing above us at two o'clock in the afternoon. It never gets boring for me to see all these happy and excited faces. To give this wonderful and unique experience to each one of them and make them happy, that’s the best part of my job.”
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Cracking , snipping and crunching is all part of the experience on the way to the sweet crab meat on the inside.
King crabs have a sweet, mild flavour similar to lobster.
King crab with caviar, on blinis.
Decker’s pride is written all over his face as he carries a tray loaded full of cooked crab legs into the dining room. Donning his finest ‘King of the Crabs’ apron, he dishes out crab legs that fill the full diameter of the dinner plates and watches on as his guests crack, snip, and crunch through to the sweet crab meat inside. In a quiet moment between replenishing crab legs and cracking a joke, he admits that, “This is something I could for sure imagine doing the rest of my life.”
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