Monster of the Deep

Published: January 30, 2013

Deep-sea biologist Edith Widder shines a light on the mysterious giant squid, which she helped capture on film in its natural habitat for the first time.

In 1873, fishermen plying the waters off the coast of Newfoundland saw something enormous floating in the water. According to their account, when they went to investigate, it lashed out at them with its tentacles, and, in defending themselves, they chopped off one of the tentacles and brought it back to shore. It was 19 feet long, and its reporting became the beginning of scientific literature on the giant squid.

The giant squid has been the subject of folklore and fiction for centuries, terrifying seafarers and capturing the imaginations of people the world over. Tales of its existence have been woven into classic stories like Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But while it’s been talked about for a very long time, it has never before been seen in its natural habitat.

I’ve spent a lot of my career exploring the deep oceans by diving in submersibles and working with remotely operated vehicles. I became fascinated with how much light animals in the ocean give off – their bioluminescence – and also wondered how many animals we were scaring away with our white lights and noisy thrusters. I started thinking about how we might use our knowledge of light and vision in the ocean to explore less obtrusively.

I certainly wasn’t the first to think about this. Many people have tried to use red light for deep-sea exploration, because most sea creatures can’t see it, but it’s very tricky to use in the ocean. I determined a way to do it, and then decided to go one step further. I wanted to attract active predators, rather than the scavengers that everyone else was attracting by simply submerging their cameras with bait. I used what I knew about bioluminescence, and found a way to imitate a bioluminescent display that I had reason to believe might be attractive to large predators.

The resulting camera system, called the Eye-in-the-Sea, used specific wavelengths of red light and an intensified camera to see the animals without them seeing us. We tested this system along with the optical lure for the first time in 2004 in the Gulf of Mexico. Eighty-six seconds after we turned the lure on for the first time, we recorded a squid that was more than six feet long and completely new to science. It was an amazing proof of concept.

I spoke about my discovery at the TED Conference in 2011, catching the attention of a well-known underwater cinematographer and filmmaker named Mike deGruy. Mike was already involved in a project with Discovery Channel to hunt for the giant squid, and was excited about the techniques I was using. He invited me to take part in what would turn out to be an amazing underwater adventure to capture the giant squid on film for the first time. How could I refuse?

Working with engineer Lee Frey and a colleague from Australia, Justin Marshall, we repackaged the Eye-in-the-Sea into a platform that could be deployed either as a lander or a drifter, and called the new system the Medusa. In June and July 2012, we deployed the camera system with the optical lure in the waters off the Ogasawara Islands, 620 miles south of Japan. Our plan was to let it float at a depth of 700 meters for 30 hours during each deployment. These deployments proved wildly successful. On the second deployment we got three recordings of giant squid, and then we got two more with subsequent deployments.

From carcasses washed up on shore or caught in fishing nets, the giant squid has been known to be real for a long time, but except for the first still images shot by Tsunemi Kubodera in 2004, no one had ever seen it alive in its natural habitat before. When we did see it for the first time, all we could see were its arms waving in front of the camera, and I had to be convinced that it was indeed the giant squid. I’m not a squid expert, but it was the biggest thing I’d ever seen on this camera system. We figure if its tentacles had been fully extended it would have been about two storeys tall – and other specimens have been as tall as four storeys. It’s still sinking in how phenomenal it really was.

Our huge excitement was tempered only by the absence of Mike deGruy. Mike should have been there with us to share in the glory, but he was tragically killed in a helicopter accident just four months before the cruise while working on a documentary with James Cameron in Australia.

The discovery of the giant squid is proof of something many fail to realize about the underwater world. We’ve only explored about five percent of our oceans, and, even in that exploration, it would seem that we’ve been scaring a lot of animals away. This gives me great hope that further exploration will yield even more incredible results.

Unfortunately, we’re destroying our oceans faster than we’re exploring them. The same year that we first tested the optic lure in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy came out with an alarming report on the state of our oceans. It was that report that inspired me to start the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), a non-profit organization that aims to “protect and restore aquatic ecosystems and the species they sustain.”

I can’t bear the thought that, because of the way we’re treating our planet, future generations won’t have the chance to explore and discover the way I have. The ecosystems we’re passing on to them are spiraling out of control, and any steps we can take now to conserve and restore are steps that we absolutely must take. Small steps now, like setting aside marine protected areas, preventing bottom trawlers from ravaging fragile underwater habitats, and locating and stopping land-based sources of water pollution, will have enormous beneficial impacts in the future.

At the same time, we must take full advantage of the innovative technologies we have at our disposal to fully explore our planet. Now that our search for the giant squid has proved successful, everyone wants to know what will come next. But there’s really no way to know. That’s the thing about exploration: There’s no limit to what you can discover.

 

Edith Widder is a biologist and deep-sea explorer who recently helped capture the very first footage of a giant squid alive in its natural habitat. A specialist in bioluminescence (the light chemically produced by many ocean organisms), Edith has been a leader in designing and inventing equipment to enable unobtrusive deep-sea observations. She co-founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA) in 2005, and, in 2006, was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photos courtesy of Edith Widder.

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