Ocean explorers have finally achieved one of the field’s most alluring but elusive goals--capturing video of the legendary giant squid in its natural deep-sea habitat. Scientists say spectacular footage, captured during an expedition off Japan’s Ogasawara archipelago dedicated to the quest, answers enduring questions about the enigmatic invertebrate.
Japan’s NHK and the Discovery Channel in the U.S. funded the 6-week July mission, which has not been discussed publicly until this week as air dates for separate NHK and Discovery documentaries approach.
The group got the coveted first video glimpse in the deep of a giant squid, Architeuthis dux, using a unique camera system. Later they came face-to-face with one via submersible. “It was so beautiful that I have no words to explain it,” says Tsunemi Kubodera of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, who was on that dive.
The team suspended the camera system, called Medusa, about 700 meters down and left it running for multi-hour stretches. Bright lights can scare deep-sea animals that live in a world of near darkness, so Medusa is equipped with a low-light camera and red lights, a color that most deep animals don’t see.
Edith Widder, a deep-sea explorer and founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Florida, developed the system. She believes that light, and the giant squid’s huge eyes, which can be as large as dinner plates, were the keys to the group’s success.
Though little or no sun reaches most of the deep-sea, the bioluminescent light deep dwellers produce chemically is ubiquitous. Past research by Widder and others suggests bioluminescence plays key roles in feeding. So, she and her colleagues have also fitted Medusa with an electronic bioluminescence mimic that appears to have been an effective lure.
Medusa encountered a first giant squid on its second deployment, igniting jubilation on the ship. “I just was blown away,” says Widder,” I couldn’t have been happier.” The first snippet showed just portions of three huge tentacles. But later deployments yielded additional encounters culminating in a full view of a squid apparently attacking the camera system. Widder estimates it was about 4 meters long, though giant squid can grow as large as 10 meters or more.
Each day, two team members also went down for an 8-hour submersible dive. About a week after the first Medusa success, Kubodera and sub pilot Jim Harris experienced the encounter that left Kubodera speechless.
With only dim light they could barely tell when the giant arrived. Once they had enough low-light footage they turned on their Triton sub’s bright main lights, expecting to spook the squid. Instead, it continued feeding on bait tied to the sub. For 18 mesmerizing minutes the pair watched the huge animal as its surprisingly iridescent skin shifted between gold and silver metallic hues.
Kubodera was using a cutout of a squid as a possible lure based on his hypothesis that giant squid can find prey such as smaller squid by looking upward to detect silhouettes. There was also a lighted jig that Widder thinks may have been critical.
Past expeditions, both led by Kubodera, have returned still shots of a squid in the deep, and video of a giant at the surface. Numerous dead specimens have also been collected around the world. But, he says the up close, extended view was like seeing an entirely new animal.
Clyde Roper, a zoologist emeritus at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, who was involved in multiple past expeditions in search of giant squid, says the encounters answer longstanding questions. For instance, although some had hypothesized the giant squid was more passive, based on the vigorous bait attacks seen it is a very strong swimmer and feeder.
“This has gone a long, long way to helping us understand this animal,” says Roper, “They did just a marvelous job.”