Craig Parker popped his head above the surf, peeled off his dive mask and clambered aboard the Ichiban. We were anchored 50 yards offshore from a fir-lined peninsula that juts into Puget Sound. Sixty feet below, where Parker had spent his morning, the seafloor was flat and sandy—barren, to unschooled eyes, except for the odd flounder or orange sea pen. Parker's eyes, though, were well trained. Wearing a neoprene dry suit, he stood in the boat surrounded by the morning's haul: a glistening payload of an absurdly proportioned shellfish defined by a mass of pudgy, lolling flesh.
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Buried in the muck beneath Puget Sound lives the Pacific Northwest's most profitable marine creature, a mollusk so valuable that gangsters have traded it for narcotics: the geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck"), the world's largest burrowing clam. Its long, leathery neck can stretch to the length of a baseball bat or recoil to a wrinkled nub. The neck resembles an aardvark's snout, an elephant's trunk or a monstrous prehistoric earthworm emerging from a fist-size shell, among other things.
Forty years ago this mollusk was virtually unknown outside the Northwest. Today Puget Sound fishermen sell four million pounds of it each year, or about two million clams' worth. Swanky New York bistros serve geoduck with rice wine vinegar. Japanese chefs slice it for sushi and sashimi. Most of the harvest goes to China, where cooks in Shanghai and Beijing simmer the clams in hot pots. A single geoduck can fetch $60 in a Hong Kong fish market.
The lowly bivalve, it seems, has come out of its shell. Like many Pacific Northwesterners, I'd long been amused and amazed by the geoduck's rise from obscurity to delicacy. The outsize creature somehow provokes outsize behavior: divers swim among sharks to collect it; scientists labor over burbling caldrons to grow it; detectives track smugglers through night-vision goggles to protect it. So I set out to visit some of those whose lives are linked—by occupation or obsession—to this homely creature. What I found was a universe as unusual as Panopea abrupta itself.
The name geoduck comes from the Nisqually Indian gweduc, which means "dig deep." The clam uses a tiny foot to burrow into the seafloor as it grows. Its shell can end up several feet down, with only its neck poking up into the water. Called siphons, these necks, double-barreled like a shotgun, dimple the sand like rows of wheat. Geoducks feed by drawing microscopic creatures called phytoplankton down one side of the neck, and they expel filtered water through the other. Once buried, a geoduck's shell remains sedentary. While other clams move to avoid predators, a geoduck, when approached by a hungry crab or spiny dogfish, retracts its siphon, like a turtle withdrawing its head.
Geoducks can reach 14 pounds and live more than 150 years—so long that scientists use rings on the clams' shells to track climate change. Geoducks are broadcast spawners: several times a year, in late winter or early spring, males release sperm in smoky clouds, which causes females to release millions of eggs. Within 48 hours, shelled larvae begin swimming; weeks later they drop to the seafloor and start digging. Those landing on rocky bottoms can grow into gnarled clams with dirty gray siphons; those hitting loose sand dig deeper and grow plumper, producing the coveted ivory-colored meat.
Related species grow from Argentina to New Zealand and Japan, but the largest geoducks reside on North America's Pacific Coast. There they support commercial fishing in southeast Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, where the geoduck trade got its start. Hundreds of millions of geoducks inhabit Puget Sound, many of them dwelling in waters hundreds of feet deep. Fishermen collect the clams by hand, by diving to the seafloor trailing breathing tubes. The law restricts divers to waters less than 70 feet deep, mostly for safety reasons: if they went any deeper, they might need to recover inside a decompression chamber.
During Parker's morning dive, in water a chilly 57 degrees Fahrenheit, he had crawled on the seafloor, where anemones glow in waggling fingers of lavender, and pink sea stars shuffle in pursuit of prey. Breathing air through an umbilical linked to a compressor on the boat, Parker scanned the smooth sand for siphon tips. He was armed only with a water spray gun, called a stinger, with which he loosened clams from their beds. In 90 minutes, he had gathered about 150 geoducks.
From a skiff tied alongside the 36-foot Ichiban, I watched with Parker's friend Casey Bakker, a geoduck diver and seafood dealer, as Parker's crew packed the mollusks into plastic crates. Parker and his crew members are all Squaxin Island Indians; Native American tribes hold exclusive treaty rights to half of Puget Sound's commercial shellfish harvests. The clams would be taken to a dock, loaded onto a refrigerated truck, then boxed in ice for shipping. Bakker had arranged for the bivalves to be flown that night, still wriggling, to China.
Geoduck fishing is grueling, even hazardous work. Fishermen drag hundreds of feet of line in a nearly weightless environment, wrestling for leverage and toiling against the tides. A few geoduck divers have been killed on the job. Others have been wrapped around anchors, tangled in gear or swept off by undercurrents. A gray whale's barnacled snout once nosed through the silt and struck Bakker's friend Mark Mikkelsen, flattening him like a whack from a two-by-four. He escaped with a bruise. Bakker once came whisker to whisker with a sea lion. "Down there, a thousand-pound sea lion doesn't look substantially different from a grizzly," he recalled.