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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“I’ll never forget how beautiful it was,” says Harris. “It looked like it was covered in gold leaf.” That was a surprise to everyone because the dead ones certainly hadn’t looked like that. They were pasty. Kubodera says it was like seeing an entirely different animal.

During the encounter, the ship called down for a status report. Harris said it would have to wait because they were in the middle of filming a giant squid. At first, no one topside believed them. The full event took 23 minutes. “We couldn’t imagine what it was doing that it would be on-camera for that long,” says Widder, who was in the ship’s control room. When the trio finally surfaced, it was like a victory parade, with shouts and applause.

Kubodera thinks that the giant squid’s approach to both Medusa and the sub bait support his silhouette hypothesis. Widder points out that in addition to the bait they used to create the silhouette, they also had a lighted squid jig on the sub like ones that local fishermen use. No one can say what the most critical element was. But some combination of light, silhouettes, and perseverance was enough for the expedition to make history.

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For Widder, deep exploration remains a delight, but it’s no longer the primary focus of her career. In 2005, she left her longtime research post at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to found the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, headquartered in a scenic old Coast Guard station on the Fort Pierce inlet. She wanted to take a step away from academia, where scientists are expected to stay relatively quiet in public and avoid anything that smacks of activism.

Widder had been growing increasingly overwhelmed by the environmental decline she was seeing, particularly pollution in coastal waters and estuaries, which are plagued by the polluted runoff of a Florida lifestyle dependent on constant growth and lots of fertilizer.

ORCA is developing low-cost, compact water-quality monitoring systems that can be deployed for long periods. The devices, dubbed Kilroys, measure conditions like currents and temperatures, which give good indicators of where water is coming from. It has sensors for things like nitrogen and phosphorous, found in lawn fertilizer and sewage and capable of fueling algae blooms and other problems. Kilroys can also collect water samples for more thorough analyses.

The group is using bioluminescence to listen to what the ocean is saying. Various micro-organisms throughout most near-shore waters produce bioluminescence, including the bacteria that can turn raw oysters deadly. Bioluminescence sensors in Kilroys could be used to trigger the water sampling. The group is also testing bioluminescence in sediment samples to look for further signs of pollution.

Most people assume this kind of water and sediment testing is done by some government agency or other, but in truth it’s quite rare, says Widder. She wants to wipe away the fallacy that pollution is an amorphous, intractable problem by gathering the information needed to pinpoint key problems. The group wants to create the aquatic equivalent of weather maps. Red shows polluted waters, blue the areas in the best shape. If people know the spot their kids swim in is in the red, they’ll take much more notice, she reasons. Perhaps more importantly, tourists would gravitate to cleaner waters if they could, creating a strong motivation for improvements.

Already the project has had success. Mapping the pollution in a stretch of Indian River Lagoon—Widder’s home and her office are both on the lagoon—she was surprised to find that two canals came up blue in a field of red. After some checking, the team learned that the golf course on those canals had switched to better environmental practices. They were preventing mowed grass clippings and runoff from the course from making it into the water. It was the perfect example for the local government, and in short order, a new fertilizer ordinance was passed.

They seem a world apart, but to Widder, the deep-sea exploration for fantastic creatures and the coastal environmental work guided by microbes are intimately tied. Not just because it’s all one big sea. Attention from the higher profile deep-sea work gives her a bully pulpit for focusing attention on things people don’t want to hear about, like water pollution. “I don’t want to hear about that stuff either,” she says. “But we’ve got to deal with it.” Widder says the deep sea is her first love, but there’s work to be done onshore if we want to preserve the chance to figure out what’s down there.

Discovery Channel’s Monster Squid: The Giant Is Real premieres on Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Mark Schrope is a freelance writer in Melbourne, Fla., who covers science, medicine, technology, travel, and adventure. His work has taken him on a flight into the eye of a hurricane, and by submersible to the seafloor 1,700 feet deep.

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