From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the tale of the mythical Kraken,
the giant squid has long loomed large in the popular imagination.
But for actual science, the creature has eluded us.
We only really know about it from specimens
that have washed ashore or even caught in nets until now.
For the second time ever, and for the first time in US waters,
Researchers have captured the giant squid on camera.
So, how do they do it and what does this mean
for our understanding of this mysterious creature?
To find out, we’re speaking to
one of the expedition’s leaders, Dr. Edith Witter.
She’s also the one responsible for
developing the technology that made this all possible.
So, this is obviously a very elusive creature,
I wonder if you could walk us through
what exactly science does know so far about this animal
that has been very difficult to actually spot in the wild.
So, for the longest time, what we knew about giant squid was
based on the dead specimens that floated to the surface.
But seeing one in its natural habitat
became what was called the holly grail of natural history cinematography.
And I have been saying for some time that I think
we need to try exploring the deep ocean in a different way.
The primary way we know about life in the ocean
is we drag nets behind ships.
And I defy you to name any other branch of science
that still depends on hundreds years old technology.
It’s an axiom among marine scientists that
nets only capture the slow, the stupid and the greedy.
And so, how much are we missing?
And if we go down with submersibles and remote operated vehicles
that have really bright lights and sometimes very noisy thrusters,
and any sensible animal’s gonna get out of the way.
And so, I wanted a different way to explore
and started trying to develop a camera system
that could see without being seen.
And so, I developed this optical lure
that we call it electronic jellyfish or e-jelly.
The imitates certain bioluminescent displays
that I thought might be attractive to large predators.
And sure enough, it was.
Can you tell us more about the e-jelly?
What kind of organism, is it mimicking and how is it doing so?
It’s a bunch of blue LEDs that are embedded in epoxy.
And they’re imitating the display of a jellyfish
that when it is caught in the clutches of a predator,
it produces this pinwheel of light
that is meant as a scream for help.
And it’s called a bioluminescent burglar alarm.
Because it functions very much like the burglar alarm on your car.
The blaring horn and flashing lights are meant to attract attention,
hopely of the police, and cause the burglar to run away,
because it doesn’t want to get caught.
Well, the same thing is true for a lot of animals
in the ocean that can make light.
If they’re caught in the clutches of a predator,
they may use every light organ they’ve got
in the flashiest way possible pounding tended
to attract the attention of a larger predator.
How do we now understand the creature better than we used to?
It’s very clear that this is an active, visual predator.
You see, this giant squid,
surfing along beside the camera and the electronic jellyfish,
it’s tracking exactly what the camera is doing.
So, it’s… you know, it’s clearly a visual predator.
It watches it for a while and then comes in for the attack.
Obviously, this would be an exciting discovery, somewhat memorable.
What was it like out there on the high seas?
It was actually probably the most unusual day at sea I’ve ever had.
I was… doing this project in collaboration with Nathan Robinson.
The video is collected over a 24-to-30-hour period by the camera system.
And we don’t know what we’ve got
until we collect the camera and download it.
It takes many hours to download the data,
and then many more hours to go through it.
And Nate was going through it in the lab.
He came in and he didn’t even say anything,
his eyes were just about popping out of his head.
I knew it was something important.
And I came running into the lab,
and there it was, this giant squid,
coming out of the bloom, attacking the e-jelly.
And, it was… you know, it was incredible.
And then others from around,
the ship came running around to see it.
And we wanted to confirm before we shared it with the world
that it really was a giant squid.
And so, we wanted to connect with the Smithsonian,
but the internet was down, because we were in the middle of the squall.
And as we were still all around the computer
watching this loop over and over agian,
the ship got hit by lightning,
which’s never happenned to me in all my years of going on the sea.
Ran out under the fantail and there was just
plume of yellow and brown smoke,
and bits of antenna on the deck, it got to hit the antenna on the ship.
We all thought, at the moment… at the same moment,
“Oh my god! What about the computer?”
Because we hadn’t backed up the video yet, we’ve just gotten it.
And what a disaster that would have been?
But we ran in and our laptop that this was on was okay.
Some of the other computers actually did get zapped.
And then even as we were still kind of
processing all of this, still didn’t have internet,
the captain comes down and tells us
that there was a waterspout, forming off of our port bow.
And so, it really felt like Poseidon was trying to protect his secrets.
But eventually, we did get the internet back up,
that we were able to send the video to Mike Vecchio at the Smithsonian.
And he was able to confirm that yes in all likelihood,
as much as he was willing to put his reputation on the line,
it was a giant squid.
It was probably a juvenile with the mantle on the arms,
it was probably about 12 feet long,
if the tentacles were fully extended, it would be even longer than that.
With a full adult, as far as we know
they can get as tall as a four-story building.
It sounds like a scene out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,
got a giant cephalopod and angry seas all coming together and some high drama.
Yeah, I think Jules Verne would have approved.
So, up until this point, why has it been that we haven’t really seen
much of these giant squid, especially alive, out in the wild?
We’ve actually explored very little
of what is the largest habitat on planet, the open ocean.
Mostly we know about what lives there by dragging nets.
But visits with submersibles and remote operated vehicles
are few and far between.
And when you think in terms of the volume that we’re talking about,
this is an enormous bolum, more than 99.9％ of the biosphere,
the living space on the planet, is in the water.
And we’ve just barely barely glimpsed the life down there.
And maybe a creature like the giant squid, this science fiction creature,
which is just a head with arms and tentacles whipping out of it,
and a beak that can rip flesh, and eyes, the size of a dinner plate,
and three hearts that can pump blue blood.
I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.
And if that would excite the public’s interest,
which is seemed to have done, then that’s awesome.
Thank you for chatting with us today, we appreciate it.
I was glad to do it.
From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the tale of the mythical Kraken,