Megan McLachlan talks to Captain Sig Hansen and executive producer Arom Starr-Paul about 15 years of Deadliest Catch and how it’s changed television.
Believe it or not, Deadliest Catch has been on for 15 seasons. The Discovery docu-series has outlasted its class of 2005 peers that include How I Met Your Mother, Bones, and The Office.
And in 15 seasons, it hasn’t dropped anchor when it comes to compelling drama. The storms appear to be more treacherous (which may or may not have to do with global warming) and technology like GoPro cameras are able to capture unique angles for the best in storytelling on the high seas.
I had a chance to chat with Deadliest Catch cast member Captain Sig Hansen who helms the Northwestern ship as well as executive producer Arom Starr-Paul about what’s changed in 15 seasons, how the series redefined reality TV, and why the whole crew is like a family.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. The series has been on for nearly 15 years now. How has the series changed since it came on the scene and how do you think it’s changed television?
ASP: The show defined a genre. It followed people into an exotic and remote place, and told stories that were a lot deeper than transactional, told really deep character stories in a really brutal environment, in a way that hadn’t been done in a serialized format before. It smashed open a whole new kind of television. Over the years, it’s evolved a lot. I’ve been on the series for seven years, and just in that time, it has evolved immensely. You watch from Season 8 and Season 9, and it’s just a different show completely in terms of the look. But the core of the series is the same. It’s following these guys and really trying to tell an authentic story for guys like Sig.
AD: Sig, your daughter Mandy is a part of the show. How do you feel about her working with you in such a dangerous field?
SH: I feel protective of her of course, but at the same time, it’s a mind set. She’s been on the boat since she was 13 years old every summer. We do what’s called a salmon charter, or salmon packing, so she just returned home a couple of weeks ago after about a six-week stint. Her husband Clark [Pederson] ran the boat for the very first time, I’m very proud of that fact. She’s always said she wanted to be in the Bering Sea as a little kid, and next thing you know, here we are. I don’t want her to resent me! I would never deny her the opportunity.
ASP: One of the things that’s interesting about that, for the crab fishermen/deckhands/camera crew, it’s 100% injury rate. It’s a really dangerous environment. If you get away being banged up and bruised, that’s a win. You came out on top. It really is concerning for Sig as a parent, but also a captain and his crew and for the manager of the Deadliest Catch series and his film crew being out there. It’s concerning on all fronts. But that access, that exposure of that world, is why it’s so intriguing.
AD: Do you feel concerned as an EP when this is going on? Are you wanting to hear back about how things are going? Do you feel protective of them as well?
ASP: Absolutely. Over the course of the season, we shoot for more or less 13 weeks and during that time it’s really tense. We get daily calls from the boat from our crew, telling us about story, their status. It’s also their safety concerned. You want to know who’s banged up. And you are kind of like a surrogate parent in a way, making sure everyone is taking care of themselves. Even seasickness can be life-threatening if not treated. Without a doubt, it’s a very tense time for everyone involved in the show, because to get that level of authenticity, they need to be out there in the same circumstances as the fishermen. And it’s not called Deadliest Catch for no reason.
AD: Sig, I wanted to find out how your wife is doing. I know she just dealt with a cancer diagnosis, which was such an emotional scene to watch. What was it like going through something like that on camera, when you’re already in such an intense environment to begin with?
SH: When I first heard about it, it hit me like a ton of bricks obviously. We didn’t know what type of cancer it was, so in all honesty, it was a two-week waiting period, so that was really hard. But that being said, she’s like a rock. Just do your thing, and you can’t change anything, and I’ve got this—that was her mentality. I’m lucky to have that because her father was a fisherman, his father was a fishermen, they’re from Norway—it’s just different because she has that mentality and she knows who she married into and what it’s all about. It really helps that way, but at the same time, it was a tearjerker for me.
AD: You guys deal with lots of storms on this series. With issues like global warming, have you noticed these storms have gotten worse over the years? Have you noticed any change?
SH: Yeah, there’s change. We’ve had different types of storms over the last two years, heavier tides. As far as global warming, we had these ice years, but the quotas are smaller now, so we don’t see as much ice because we’re not up there as long. It seems like every year the ice comes down and breaks off and comes down into the Bering Sea. If we can get our crab caught fast enough before that happens, that’s a win for us. So we’ve had a lot of ice years on the show, lately we haven’t seen it, but I think it’s because our quotas are smaller. It’s weird when you talk about global warming, because it ain’t warm in Alaska!
ASP: You are always cold on a crab boat, for sure. One thing, just to chime in, and it might be part of what Sig was saying, the ice hasn’t come down as low. That ice usually dampens the sea state and the waves, with their being less ice lower, the wave height has increased under the same wind conditions, so you do see really hostile conditions over the last few years. At least from what I’ve seen. Sig is out there all the time and has a much wider breadth of experience to draw upon, but over the last six or seven years, it has definitely felt like to me, having just watched the footage, the storms have gotten more intense. And the tides like the King tide and supermoon have amped up the waves and have been amazing to witness from our side.
AD: Do the cameras ever get in the way? There are great shots from the point of view of the hook as it goes into the water. Does it take the crew a long time to set up to get those shots?
ASP: That’s for you, Sig. [Laughs.]
SH: Fifteen years ago, it was very disruptive. But the guys are getting better and better. They have better equipment like GoPros, so they’ve got all eyes from every angle. Our biggest thing with camera guys, you’ve got to get along socially. I think you get more out of each other when you can actually communicate instead of butting heads. But a lot of the camera guys have been there for years now as well. They’ve done such a great job. It’s just like clockwork now. They know where to stand and where to go. The boat is like a ballet. There’s a rhythm to it on the deck. You have to be at a certain place at a certain time. Everything’s moving. The guys that really know what they’re doing can move along with that. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re dead. We’ve saved two cameramen’s lives already alone, my brother and I both. From being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But the guys are getting much better.
AD: Can you ever imagine going back to life on the boat without the cameras?
ASP: You’d miss us so much, Sig!
SH: I’d miss you. I think it’d be really strange because our little boat was made to pack five or six guys. Not we’re out there with eight to nine guys on the boat. We barely have any living quarters, it’s really cramped. Once in a while, the camera guys will give you a break. They’re downloading their stuff, doing their notes, and all of the sudden your wheelhouse is your wheelhouse again, your galley is your galley. You get those little moments, and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is nice.’ [Laughs] But at the end of the day, they’re not a stranger either. But once in a while it’s nice to have your own space, cause that’s how it was before. Yeah, that’s a good question. I don’t know how I’d react.
ASP: There’s a whole learning curve, Megan, about being in the right place in the right time. When you’ve been on the show year after year, they get better and better at it. Right now we have the super veteran staff that has been on cumulatively probably close to 50 seasons. They’re really veteran and it’s a big family now. They have a good rhythm.
AD: It feels very claustrophobic, which adds to the intensity, but how do you get those exterior shots? Are there other boats on the water?
ASP: Yes, we have a few different things going on. Mainly what we have is what we refer to as our chase boat, the fishing vessel Amatuli, which we have cameras mounted on. That boat goes right where these guys fish, and they get those amazing shots of the boats crashing through waves out in open water. That really is the most celebrated part of our visual language, are those huge boat shots. That’s really showcasing the element, the monster that everyone has come to see, big mean Bering Sea waves. There is a vessel out there that has its own camera crew and its own very elaborate and expensive camera mounted on it that gets threatened all the time by water.
AD: That’s so cool. Finally, 15 years on the air. What is it about the show that has made it endure?
SH: I think it’s generational. I think part of it is 15 years ago you might have been a kid that was eight or nine years old watching it with your dad, we were inside the TV, then 15 years later the same kid got his own phone, and it’s a generational thing. I’ve seen grandparents with kids come up at some of our meet and greets. That and the fact that we’ve changed naturally with different crews. Like Mandy, for example, that was never a planned thing to have my daughter there 15 years ago. People feel like they’re a part of our family. Every day I leave my house, somebody will say, ‘I’m so proud of your daughter.’ They feel like they’re part of your family. We transition. There’s always something new and that’s what I think keeps it really interesting for most.
ASP: The legacy, the story. The primal storytelling is something a lot of people can relate to. These guys—everything is fighting against them. But they’re going to achieve their goal. We have documented everything and evolved with the characters. We’ve grown up with these guys. They’ve gone from boys to men, girls to women.
Season 15 of Deadliest Catch airs on Discovery Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET.