Stalking squids

Jan 27 2013 - 9:17am

Deep-sea biologist Edith Widder was working on a ship positioned off Japan's Ogasawara Islands when Wen-Sung Chung asked her to step into the lab to see something. Cameras followed her as she got up. This was not unusual, since the Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the Discovery Channel were funding the expedition. Chung was nonchalant, so it didn't occur to Widder that she was about to see the culmination of a quest that has driven ocean explorers for more than a century. She thought maybe it was going to be video of a cool shark.

The purpose of the expedition was to capture footage of the enigmatic giant squid in its natural habitat. The animal can grow to 35 feet or longer, and its eye is as big as your head. But it lives about 1,000 feet below the surface and deeper, and it had only been glimpsed a few times at the surface and photographed alive once.

Widder is a world expert on bioluminescence, the light that countless marine animals use to communicate, especially in the dark world of the deep sea. For years she's been studying how the deep's bizarre inhabitants use the light. Some animals use it to lure a mate, others a meal. And she suspects that certain jellyfish pulse with bioluminescence when they are getting attacked. It's a last-ditch attempt that works sort of like a burglar alarm to bring in something even bigger to attack the attacker.

Widder has spent months of her life underwater, at times piloting submersibles. For years, she has argued that scientists were getting at best a tilted view of the wonders of the deep sea. By going down with robotic vehicles or in submersibles with lights blazing, she and others have reasoned, they were scaring lots of good stuff away. Deep-sea animals barely see any light, so a typical submersible dive is the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience. Everything bolts.

Years ago, on a shoestring budget, she and her team built a deployable system that included a low-light camera and dim red lights, which most deep dwellers can't detect. (Their eyes are tuned to blue wavelengths, which travel farther through water.)

Then she added bait. The system, called Eye-in-the-Sea, is fitted with a device that mimics the ring of blue lights fired in a marquee pattern by certain jellyfish -- the ones she thinks do the burglar alarm trick. She deployed the system for the first time in the Gulf of Mexico. Just 86 seconds later, a large squid darted into view; it was a species new to science.

Widder brought a more advanced version of that system, dubbed Medusa, aboard the Alucia. She hoped the secret weapon would attract a giant squid. They hung it about 2,300 feet down from a surface buoy and left it running for hours.

The giant squid has been the stuff of legend for about as long as people have sailed across oceans. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder described what may have been giant squid, which occasionally wash ashore or end up in fishermen's nets, and the species is thought to be the origin of the Norwegian kraken myth.

When Chung, a graduate student at the University of Queensland, brought Widder into the lab and started fast-forwarding through the video, the scientists were already a week into a six-week expedition with nothing significant to show. Producer-types were growing tense.

As Chung skipped through footage, Widder finally saw it. The tips of three huge tentacles creeped up out of the lower right corner of the screen, then undulated in front of the camera and showed off impressive rows of suckers. "I was just blown away," says Widder, "I must have said, 'Oh, my God!' about five times."

NHK and Discovery couldn't have asked for a more dramatic story to unfold over the coming days if they had trained giant squids and given them a script. Medusa had a total of five encounters with the giants, and each time they showed just a little more leg. Several days after the first encounter, a squid came into full view, arms waving, attacking Medusa. Widder says the sighting supports her burglar-alarm hypothesis -- the squid didn't go after the eJelly that was producing a mock alarm signal, but the big thing close to it.

"This is further proof we've been exploring the oceans the wrong way," says Widder.

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