How Do You Catch a Giant Squid? With a Pulsating Electronic Jellyfish.

People who accomplish great things, and how they do it.
Jan. 25 2013 5:43 AM

The Giant Squid Stalker

Edith Widder uses light to communicate with mysterious animals in the deep sea.

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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.” She didn’t fully trust that they had “captured” a giant until Steve O’Shea, a marine biologist from New Zealand, and Kubodera confirmed it was, in fact, the elusive Architeuthis dux. On the Discovery documentary you see Kubodera’s face light up, then, “Oh, you’ve done it.” Widder yells, “Yes!”

Watch a 10-second clip of the giant squid.

The expedition leaders didn’t tell the crew what had happened at first, because they were headed to port for the Fourth of July and feared that too much drinking and talking might lead to a breach of the news they hoped to keep secret until they could get documentaries out.

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NHK and Discovery couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic story to unfold over the coming days if they had trained giant squid 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. Clyde Roper of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and a veteran of multiple giant squid hunts himself, says that Widder’s focus on bioluminescence makes sense, especially considering that the giant squid has the largest eyes of any known animal. “Why else would they have such huge eyes? To me it’s undeniably because they are using them to pick up bioluminescence,” he says. He agrees that the eJelly was almost certainly the key to the success. “I think that was critical to the whole scene.”

This expedition is likely to focus more attention on Widder than she’s ever experienced, but she has had her share. A TED talk a few years back led to her involvement in the expedition, and she has another one coming up. In 2006, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of their “genius grants.” Stephen Colbert mentioned her on his show and even mocked her a bit because, he felt, he should have gotten the half-million-dollar prize for his own “deep” explorations.

Now Widder is the first person to capture footage of a giant squid in its natural habitat. But even she admits that the grainy black-and-white footage, by itself, would have been a little unsatisfying. Some high-def footage would be the ultimate satisfaction. The drama-savvy squid would come through again.

Seven days after the first Medusa footage of a giant squid, Kubodera was in the clear sphere of a Triton submersible with pilot Jim Harris and NHK cameraman Tatsuhiko “Magic Man” Sugita when it happened. Kubodera was exploiting a different hypothesis: that the elusive squid find their prey by looking up with those huge eyes to see the faint silhouette of prey.

On Kubodera’s dives, the team tied a smaller, diamondback squid to the front of the sub and wrapped the bait around foam so that it would sink slower. Up and down, up and down the sub had gone for hours, using another low-light camera.

A giant squid latched on at 2,000 feet. As it drifted down, Harris matched the descent to keep the squid in full camera view. After the first few minutes they had flipped on the big lights, thinking the squid would flee, but it was committed to the bait. The sub’s maximum safe depth is 3,300 feet. Had the squid held on that far, Harris would have had to hit the brakes and the squid would have dropped out of view. But instead, at the last minute—3,000 feet—the squid swam off, so they got the entire encounter on film.

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