After 285 hours of searching the inky depths during 55 submarine dives a scientific team finally witnessed the elusive giant squid in its natural environment. The story of the three scientists in search of this devilfish airs Sunday in a Discovery Channel special Monster Squid: The Giant is Real.
Dr. Steve O’Shea descended in a three-man submersible vehicle to 980 feet in the dark waters off the coast of Japan. He says, “This is giant squid territory and we’re in here looking out. I want to know what’s out there looking in. We’re lit up like a Christmas tree right now.”
For years squid searchers have gone into ocean, lights blazing, looking for a hard-to-find fish. They now realize this is the wrong approach to lure light-sensitive cephalopods. That tactic is akin to hunting deer wearing tap shoes. Even after an encounter with a giant squid, marine biologists still can’t agree how best to attract the rarely-seen sea monsters.
O’Shea, who heads up the earth and ocean sciences department at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, thought spraying ground up squid would chum the waters and attract the giant squid. He was partially right. It attracted hundreds of small squid, which in turn attracted larger squid, including the very rare octopus squid. Eventually, after hundreds of hours the team finally captured the attention of one giant squid.
But it wasn’t O’Shea’s dead squid spray that did the trick.Deep sea explorer and biologist Edie Widder decided to think like a squid. She knows that jellyfish, lantern fish and other deep sea creatures glow with bioluminescence, light given off by living organisms. And she knows that those jellyfish are preyed upon by smaller squids, which in turn are fed upon by giant squids.
So the president of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) built a bowling-ball-sized plastic jellyfish that glowed with the distress call light signature of a jellyfish being preyed upon by a small squid. She says, “We’ve been exploring the deep ocean the wrong way, scaring them off instead of drawing them in.”
And her e-jelly worked.
She says, “Our first few glimpses were amazing, almost like the squid was teasing us.”
Architeuthis dux can grow up to 40 feet long and lives in the deep ocean at a depth from 300 to 3,000 feet below the surface. Like all squids, giant ones have eight arms, two feeding tentacles and a cap-like mantle. Giant squids have a mantle six feet long and eyes the size of soccer balls. Fisherman occasionally snag one or find a dead one floating on the surface. And they appear in the stomachs of sperm whales. But despite decades of concerted efforts the giant squid has eluded curious biologists.
The joint team of Japanese public television NHK and Discovery Channel brought together the world’s foremost squid experts and let them loose in the dark ocean, armed only with cameras and their own giant squid-luring equipment.
Dr. Tsunemi Kobodera from the Tokyo Museum of Science is the only man to have filmed a giant squid and he rounds out the science team on the giant squid expedition. In September 2005 using a digital camera attached to a bait long line, he captured 550 images of a giant squid.
Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s Clyde Roper says, “It’s important for people to see this kind of science, seeing living creatures as they actually live, where they actually live, is still important.” He led several unsuccessful attempts to find giant squid in the 1990s and is filled with glee when he confirms that the scientific trio are the first to capture the gentle giant in its natural habitat. Roper says, “It’s not all genes and computers, but every kind of science working together.”
The search for the giant squid had risen to the level of mythology. Even though there are scientifically documented cases of dead giant squid finding a live one has become a biological quest, likely inspired by Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
Now that Widder and the other squid-tracking scientists have achieved success in finding and filming a giant squid she has her sights set on the next denizen of the deep, the colossal squid. Even bigger than the giant squid the colossal squid lives in the cold waters of Antarctica, grows to 50 feet long and has only been spotted once and that was in the 1920s.
She says the colossal squid has bioluminescent eyes and for a bioluminsence expert that attracts her. The question remains what will attract the largest squid on Earth?