Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico 250 miles west of St. Petersburg made history with a new device that did what thousands of traditional devices could not.
Florida scientists have achieved “the holy grail of natural history cinematography:” capturing a living giant squid on video.
Edie Widder, CEO and senior scientist of the Ocean Research Conservation Association based in Fort Pierce, and her team captured the 10- to 12-foot juvenile giant squid on film June 19 in the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 250 miles west of St. Petersburg. It is the first giant squid ever recorded in U.S. waters.
Noisy undersea submersibles and remote operated vehicles with bright lights, some the size of Mini Coopers, have been deployed thousands of times, Widder said.
Widder’s lure — a quiet device dubbed “Medusa” that looks like a jellyfish in distress — has now caught a giant squid on camera twice in as many deployments.
Giant squid are estimated to grow to roughly 40 feet when they are adults and have been found washed up as large as 37 feet, said Heather Judkins, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor that helped identify the squid. Several specimens have been found dead along the Atlantic Coast, in places like Massachusetts and Newfoundland, but living adults have only been filmed once before and never alive in U.S. waters, said Smithsonian Zoologist Clyde Roper, a giant squid expert.
The latest expedition, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helped give a glimpse into the deep ocean, which scientists know very little about. Some researchers had believed that since the creatures were so big, they didn’t actively expend energy to hunt.
Widder never believed that theory because giant squid have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom. The video is proof that they are visual predators, she said, as the squid tracked the electronic jellyfish “perfectly.” It was moving like it was investigating, Judkins said.
“It highlights everything we don’t know about the deep ocean,” Judkins said. “This is totally unexplored area. It is the biggest ecosystem in the world.”
Widder, who has spent a lot of time in submersibles, always had a sense that many animals were out of her sight because of the bright lights she and other researchers had been using in the depths of the ocean. In very dark water, the bright lights of submersibles and remote-operated vehicles must have been the equivalent of staring into the sun, she said.
Widder wanted to explore less obtrusive ways of exploration, but had a hard time selling groups on funding her research. They would often ask what she would discover.
“I don’t know, but that’s the point,” she would say.
She cobbled together funding from “bizarre sources” and took what is now known as the Medusa on its first expedition in 2004, a trip also funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The first time she used the camera system with a lure that imitated a bioluminescent display, she discovered a completely new type of squid 86 seconds after turning it on.
“I could not have asked for a better proof of concept,” Widder said.
The lure works as a “bioluminescent burglar alarm.” It mimics a bioluminescent distress signal jellyfish send, Judkins said. Just like a car’s horn and lights attract attention that may scare burglars away, jellyfish “use every light organ they’ve got to scream for help visually,” Widder said.
Giant squid and other types of squid seem very interested in it, she said.
She was able to secure funding from the National Science Foundation after her first expedition and was invited on another expedition in Japan in 2012, when the Medusa caught the first-ever giant squid on camera.
The second squid caught on camera just a few weeks ago was around 759 meters deep, Judkins said — around the same depth as the one in Japan. It’s a small sample size, but to Widder, it seems this depth is “ideal hunting ground” for giant squid.
While still reviewing the footage, the team’s vessel was struck by lightning, leaving yellow and brown smoke and bits of antennae on the deck. Fortunately, they were fine.
“It felt like Poseidon didn’t want to give up his secret,” Widder said.
Going forward, Widder hopes to explore the Indian Ocean — something which will require private funding.
“People will protect what they love,” Widder said. “We need to make them aware of all the amazing creatures down there that are worthy of their attention and love.”
Contact Ben Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8421. Follow Ben on Twitter @Ben___Leonard.