FACING CLAWS THAT HAVE THE STRENGTH OF A HYDRULIC CRUSHER, TARQUIN COOPER STRUGGLES TO KEEP HIS APPETITE AT THE BOTTOM OF A NORWEGIAN FJORD.
On the most northerly point of Scandinavia, high up in the Arctic Circle, a Russian invading army is on the march. Western Europe is under threat. But this is no conventional force. It is an alien species of giant red king crabs.
These monsters of the deep, which can grow to 15kg and have an arm span of up to 2m, were introduced to the area 40 years ago. But with almost no natural predators, they have multiplied at an alarming rate and now pose a threat to the marine environment. Culling the population is a matter of priority. Is there anyone bold enough to volunteer for the job?
With a weekend to spare, a friend and I offer to do our bit. Armed with just a diver’s suit, we’ll plunge to the floor of the Arctic sea, scoop up a couple of crabs and have them cooked for our supper, washed down with a fine sauvignon blanc. That’s provided my fingers, or any other body parts, don’t get caught between the crab’s pincers. Apparently they have the strength of a hydraulic crusher.
Dan and I catch the last Oslo flight out of Heathrow but it arrives too late for our connecting flight so we bed down in the functional Radisson SAS airport hotel. Here we have the first scary encounter – the price of Norwegian beer.
We arrive at Kirkenes in an area called Finnmark where the borders of Norway, Russia and Finland meet. It’s at a latitude 70ºN, which is about 385km north of the Arctic Circle. It’s minus 15ºC outside, bone-chillingly cold and only just getting light. We are met by 37-year-old Lars-Petter Øie. Eight years ago he came up with the idea of running king crab safaris. Like most local businesses, he applied to the government for a grant but they refused. “They thought I was crazy,” he says. As we head north in Øie’s 4x4 through the snowy and pristine Arctic environment, I wonder if maybe we they were right. Who would want to go diving up here? And with giant crabs?
We turn off the road just before the border post to Russia and drive along a track alongside the shore of Jardfjord. After a few miles we come to Øie’s HQ, the Arctic Adventure Resort, a log cabin-cum-eco-lodge. A keen carpenter, he built it himself. On the porch lies a massive aeroplane propeller and a couple of heavy-duty machine guns salvaged from the fjord. Kirkenes had great strategic importance during the second world war and it was heavily bombed. As a result, there are shipwreaks and downed aircraft buried under the fjord ice.
he returns, a crab in each hand. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the sign for “No thanks, really it’s OK, I’ll just watch from over here."
Over biscuits and coffee, we discuss the dive plan. Because the water is so cold, it’s essential to wear a dry suit. These are much warmer than a conventional wet suit but there’s a catch. A diver friend of mine warned me before I left that it makes diving more challenging: air pockets can materialise in your feet and suddenly you’re upside down and floating towards the surface. “You’ve worn a dry suit before, yes?” asks Øie. “Actually, no,” I sheepishly reply.
It's not a problem, I just need to go for a short dive in shallow water to get the hang of the unfamiliar equipment before we venture into crab-infested waters. Looking after me is the team's Russian diving guide Anton Kalinin, who seems impervious to the cold and wanders around wearing a T-shirt. He hands me the gear - dry suit, fleece liner, hood and gloves. I struggle into it and can barely move once I do. The practice dive goes off with no hitches and Dan and I return inside for a late lunch of local snacks which also happen to be the most delicious smoked salmon. Around the lodge are photos of clients holding crabs and I start to feel nervous – with good reason. “Their fingers are so strong they can snap your finger off,” Øie tells me, smiling. “It’s true,” Kalinin says. “We had a group of lawyers here the other day and one of them decided to test how strong the pincers were so he gave it a titanium mobile phone. The crab crushed it.”
We mount snow mobiles and roar off across the frozen fjord at exhilarating speed. There’s then a change of transport as we reach open water and jump into a power boat. I feel like James Bond. Twenty minutes later we’re at the mouth of the fjord at a spot where we’re guaranteed to see the crabs. I put on my mask, make sure my hood is on tight and put the regulator in my mouth. Kalinin rolls confidently backwards into the sea, then Dan.
No turning back now. I close my eyes and roll backwards into the water. There’s a moment’s disorientation before I locate the two. We all exchange eye contact, do the ok sign and begin the descent to the murky depths. The temperature is just a degree or so above freezing and I’m thankful for all the gear I’m wearing – I can’t feel the cold at all. Visibility is just a few metres and we have to descend on a line.
I expel the air out of my suit and begin the journey to the deep. I’m excited but nervous. Staying calm is vitally important when diving in order to conserve tank gas. But that goes out of the window when I take in the sight on the sea-bed floor. There are dozens of giant crabs scuttling about. I’ve never seen anything so big armed with claws. Desperate to keep a safe distance, I kick hard with my fins and inject a blast of air into my suit to hover a few feet above them. From there, I marvel in horror at the sight. At certain times of the year it’s possible to see several thousand at a time. I am glad it’s comparatively quiet.
Kalinin signals for us to follow him and we glide over the kelp to a clearing on the floor, about 15m down. There, he signals for me to wait. And then he returns, a crab in each hand. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the sign for “No thanks, really it’s OK, I’ll just watch from over here.” How am I supposed to hold them again? I breath heavily and hard and grab the crab from behind, trying to keep those pincers that are now opening and closing as far away from my body as possible.
Tarquin was diving for King Crabs at the Arctic Adventure Resort. This article was first published in the FT's How To Spend It Magazine.
Tarquin Cooper is a journalist and adventurer who writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Men’s Fitness and the outdoor press. His work has also appeared in The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Express and America’s Outside Magazine. Find out more at http://tarquincooper.com/ or follow him @adventuretarq
Photography by Dan Burton ABIPP at www.underwaterimages.co.uk
I can’t believe the energy this one’s got. It’s feisty and wriggles and writhes – it’s hard to keep my hold. Kalinin then does the unthinkable and hands me another one. This had better taste good, I silently curse. After several minutes pass, we begin our gradual ascent. I look back to see if Dan is OK and am horrified. A crab has locked on to his air hose, and is dangling along for the ride. I point it out to him and with one swipe of the arm he knocks it off, sending it back to the deep.
Back in the boat, with the crabs safely in a box, Kalinin suggests we climb onto the land to a converted Nazi gun emplacement on the hillside. It’s now a circular hut with seats covered with reindeer fur. He lights the fire and boils some water for some tea and biscuits. Looking out to sea, this feels about as far away from London as it’s possible to get.
Time to rejoin the human race in an outdoor hot tub at the lodge. It is exhilarating to be basking in a bath amid clouds of steam holding back the bitter cold. With a beer in one hand I lie back and gaze in wonder at the magisterial Northern Lights. Does it get any better than this? Apparently it does. Kalinin offers to cut a hole in the ice for a refreshing post sauna cool-down dip. It’s very good of him, but I politely decline.
Kalinin dispatches the crabs with a sharp knife and then plunges them into boiling sea water. Ten minutes later the legs are ready to eat and placed on a tray beside the shell, which is just for decoration. The king crab’s skin is nothing like as tough and hard as its British counterparts. All it takes is an effortless snap and a pull to reveal several inches of mouthwatering crab meat. We eat it dipped in a lemon and garlic sauce with bread – and plenty of that sauvignon blanc.
With our flight at 11am there’s only time for a quick tour of Kirkness beginning with Andersgrotta, a vast underground shelter built during the war by residents during their free time. Dark, damp and cold, what it must have been like for the town’s 9000 residents who sheltered here during the war’s 300 bombing raids is unimaginable. I’m cold and desperate for daylight after just 10 minutes.
Then it’s onto the harbour where we encounter seriously hardened Russian fisherment. When they go out for king crabs, they spend up to four months at sea, much of it in total darkness. Now that’s tough.
Later, we arrive back in Heathrow and experience the strange sensation of London feeling as warm as a Caribbean island. There’s just enough time to enjoy a final respite of calm before facing my next predator – the boss.