So before the year 2000, nobody had taken a photo or video of a live giant squid, despite the fact that they are rather large animals (one might say “giant”) that can be up to 43 feet long. Since 2000, though, people have suddenly been able to take photos and videos of giant squid all over the place (well, at least in a few places). Even Japanese tourists are getting into the act:
So, have giant squid decided, “To heck with privacy!” and are now allowing the paparazzi to film them regularly so they can get on YouTube and then use that as a springboard to becoming the next Justin Bieber?
People have been aware of the existence of giant squid at least since the time of Aristotle. Ancient Greeks didn’t have cameras, though, and neither did the sailors and fishermen who occasionally saw giant squid at sea for the last two or three thousand years, so photographs weren’t even an option before 1850 (though, these sea-goers sometimes told artists about the giant squid, and then the artists made cool and unrealistic drawings like this):
Portable cameras didn’t become a thing until the 20th Century, but even then no one was able to get a photo of a live giant squid. This is because giant squid don’t live or even hangout in the same places that humans do.
Giant squid make their home in the deep sea. We don’t know 100% for sure the entire range of deep sea depths they prefer to live in, but the evidence suggests they live mainly in the Mesopelagic Zone, which is between 300 and 1,000 meters (aka about 1,000 to 3,300 feet) below the sea surface (This zone is also called the Twilight Zone, because it has lighting similar to the atmosphere as the sun is going down and not because everything that happens there has a twist ending).
Humans do not live in the Twilight Zone (or at least we don’t live in the ocean one), and for a long time we had no way to go down there. Our only chance of seeing a giant squid was if a dead one washed up on the beach, or if a live one that was having some problems ended up coming to the surface near a boat full of people.
All that has changed in the 21st century. Some scientists, adventurers and cable television channels have been taking advantage of current technology to go looking for giant squid in their own habitats. My favorite of the searchers (because she is a serious scientist, because her method to find a live giant squid to film was ingenious and because it involved one of the animals in my book A Day in the Deep) was Dr. Edith Widder.
Dr. Widder realized that we would have a much better chance of seeing deep sea animals like giant squid in their natural habitats if we didn’t scare them away. Submersibles, the machines we use to explore the deep sea, often have noisy motors and use bright white lights to see what is around them. For animals in the deep sea these submersibles are kind of like if Martians came down to Earth in incredible noisy and brightly lit spaceships to observe how people behave naturally. If we saw loud and bright spaceships over our backyard, our response would probably be to freak out (which is only occasionally our natural behavior). We would then run into the basement and hide under the ping-pong table and the Martians could no longer see us. The Martians would have a better chance of observing what we do naturally if they came in ships we couldn’t see or hear.
Dr. Widder had the idea to use a submersible to look for deep sea animals that is silent and emits red lights instead of white lights (most deep sea animals cannot see the color red so they would not see red light).
Not only did she figure out how to make a submersible that most deep sea animals would not notice, she also realized that we can use lights to attract deep sea animals. As we continue to learn more about deep sea animals, scientists have realized that some bioluminescent deep sea animals use the lights they make to communicate with other deep sea animals. One deep sea animal that does this is the Atolla jellyfish. When an Atolla jellyfish is attacked by a predator, it flashes a light that looks like this:
These lights are a basically a burglar alarm. They notify large predators like giant squid that there is food over here and you should come quickly to eat it. The predator swims to the light and then eats the smaller predator before it eats the Atolla jellyfish. The predator then gets a meal and the Atolla gets saved. Win-win.
Dr. Widder had the idea that, if they made a machine to mimic the burglar alarm of an Atolla jellyfish, then it could attract a giant squid, which they could then film. The Discovery Channel liked the idea and sponsored an expedition to see if it would work. They filmed everything that happened and made a documentary with the dopey name of “Monster Squid: The Giant is Real.” Here is a clip from the documentary where all our dreams of giant squid becoming movie stars came true:
Unfortunately, the narration in the documentary is also a little dopey. What you really need to watch is Dr. Widder’s TED Talk, where she explains the whole process that led to her and the other scientists and the Discovery Channel being the first people ever to film the giant squid. Along with showing cool footage, this TED Talk gives you the opportunity to hear a scientist say a bad word.
Dr. Widder’s accomplishment was an amazing moment for us deep sea animal lovers. In the future we are sure to see more of the giant squid, not only because Dr. Widder’s idea opened the door for other scientists to film giant squid in their natural habitat. Also because now, when half the adults on the planet carry a camera in their pocket everywhere they go, the next time a wayward giant squid comes to the surface, five minutes later it will almost definitely be posted on YouTube.
For a good explanation of why that giant squid came to the shore in Japan, read this post from Deep Sea News.
To learn more about deep sea habitats and Atolla jellyfish, read my book A Day in the Deep.
Online References and Resources:
The Encyclopedia of Life. "Architeuthis: Giant Squid."
The Encyclopedia of Life. "Atolla."
NOAA Ocean Explorer. "Edith A. Widder: OceanAGE Career Profile."
Ocean Research and Conservation Organization. "Dr. Edie Widder."
Smithsonian Ocean Portal. "Giant Squid."
TED. "How we found the giant squid."
Tree of Life web project. "Architeuthis."
Photos and Images:
Click the photos and images used above to find their sources.