Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are cool and all, but in Dr. Edie Widder’s opinion, there’s no animal more appropriate for science fiction than the real life giant squid. “You couldn’t ask for a better alien,” she says. “An animal with multiple arms and two long tentacles, the most enormous eyes, three hearts that pump blue blood, suckers with serrated edges, and a beak that slices flesh. And it happens to be real!”
A featured creature in mythology (the Kracken from Norse legends and Greek mythology), literature (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, among others), and old sailor’s tales, the giant squid—which can grow up to 40 feet long—has proved elusive for scientists to find: The only way researchers could study the beasts was by examining carcasses that washed up on beaches and tentacles snared by fishermen. Although one was photographed in its natural habitat in 2004, attempts to film the beast have failed. Until now.
Last summer, Widder—who is co-founder, CEO, and Senior Scientist at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association—was part of a team of scientists that filmed the giant squid in its natural habitat for the first time ever. The historic footage airs on Curiosity this Sunday, January 27, on the Discovery Channel. “The giant squid has been an enigma,” Widder tells mental_floss. “To finally have this kind of imagery of it is so exciting.”
Finding the Giant
Widder joined the team—which also included marine biologist Steve O’Shea and zoologist Dr. Tsunemi Kobodera of the National Science Museum of Japan—in 2010, after Mike deGruy heard a TED talk she gave about an optical lure she had invented. The lure, on its first deployment in the Gulf of Mexico, attracted a deep sea squid so new to science it can’t be placed in any existing family. “He just got so excited,” Widder says. “‘Can’t we use these techniques to go after the giant squid?’” (Sadly, deGruy died in a helicopter crash in 2012.)
The system is comprised of an optical lure called the Electronic Jelly (or EJelly) that mimics the pinwheel light display of a jellyfish under attack. Attached to the lure is a gadget called the Medusa, a highly sensitive camera and far red lights (which are invisible to most sea creatures—they can only see greens and blues) within a waterproof housing. Thanks to her success on the system’s first deployment and during an eight-month run in Monterey Bay, Widder thought that the EJelly and the Medusa might just be the right tools for catching a glimpse of the giant squid in its natural habitat. “Giant squid are visual predators—you don’t have eyes the size of a human head unless it’s important to your survival,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time in submersibles thinking about what animals must face for survival in dimly lit environments. There’s an enormous volume in which to find food. An awful lot of these animals are bioluminescent, and it’s clear from the work I’ve done that bioluminescence doesn’t happen spontaneously—it’s usually stimulated by some kind of interaction, frequently predatory interactions. So it would make sense that a visual predator would be on the lookout all the time for a flash of light to find something that’s worth feeding on—not the jellyfish, but what’s eating the jellyfish.”
Finding the squid was all about location: The crew headed to the deep seas off Chichi island, Japan. "That was the doing of Dr. Kobodera," Widder says. "He had done a tremendous amount of work in that area. We knew that's where sperm whales come to feed, and fishermen had snagged tentacles from the squid there. So there was a lot of interest in going to that spot." And it also took a lot of patience; the scientists made hundreds of dives in a submersible, sometimes to deeper than 3000 feet.
The Moment of Truth
When a storm was rolling in, Widder placed the system on the ocean bottom and left it there for 30 hours while the ship returned to port. When they reviewed the footage (Widder was in the submersible, so grad student Wen-Sung Schung was checking the video), bam: There was a giant squid. “It really, really worked,” Widder says. “We had five separate sightings with the Medusa.”
Later, Kobodera and a team went down in the submersible with bait and a different optical lure and captured more than 20 minutes of high-definition video of a giant squid as it fed on the bait. “Nothing can top that high res video,” Widder says. “To have that eye looking back at you like that…it’s just incredible footage.”
This mission, which was funded by the Discovery Channel and the Japanese Broadcasting Commission (NHK), succeeded where so many others had failed thanks to one important thing. “We paid attention to the squid’s visual system,” Widder says. “All previous expeditions have used bright lights and noisy platforms. ROVs have their place, but I don’t think they’re good tools for exploring animal life in the ocean. There’s a tremendous amount of noise, and you don’t have the range of vision that you do from a submersible. That really shouldn’t be ignored when you’re trying to explore such a big space. And using optical lures instead of just using bait had huge impact.”
The scientists plan to go back and review the footage they filmed, but Widder says they’ve already learned a lot—and much of it surprised them. “The appearance of the squid was so different that what we had imagined given dead specimens,” she says. “And the eye—there was something looking back at you. It wasn’t a blank, dead eye. And it was very exciting that when it attacked, it didn’t go directly to the optical lure but to what was next to the optical lure.”
But the most important takeaway, she says, is that there’s still more of the ocean to explore, and what we find there could lead to a myriad of advancements, including a cure for cancer. “What else is down there that we haven’t discovered?” she wonders. “Why spend billions of dollars on space exploration when we haven’t explored our own planet?” Her hope is that this latest discovery will lead to more funding that will allow scientists to go on more expeditions—and not just in search of the giant squid. “It would be wonderful to man an expedition like that to find the colossal squid,” she says. “That might be even more exciting. It’s not longer, but it’s bigger by weight, more massive, and bioluminescent. My fascination is with animals that make light.”
"Monster Squid: The Giant is Real" premieres January 27 at 8pm ET/PT on the Discovery Channel as the season finale of Curiosity.