Scientists have achieved a new first, capturing footage of a giant squid in the waters off the coast of the United States. It’s only the second time a giant squid has been captured swimming alive and on video.
Dr. Edie Widder, the founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, was part of the team that filmed both the 2012 squid and this most recent observation. She invented a camera system, known as MEDUSA, designed to film underwater using primarily red light — light that deep sea creatures typically can’t see. The MEDUSA system deploys on a tether up to a mile long and also incorporates a lure intended to replicate the bioluminescence of a jellyfish, a favored prey of squids.
Giant squid have been extremely difficult to study alive, and comparatively little has been known about them until relatively recently. We know they attack whales because we’ve found whales with giant squid sucker-scars on their skin. They have the largest eyes of any known species, save the colossal squid, but much of their behavior has remained a mystery, including basic questions like whether they were active hunters, swimming through the depths in search of a meal, or more likely to drift slowly with the current, expending minimal energy. (Research on this point continues, but the available data suggests these squid don’t hunt passively.) The entire reason Widder invented the MEDUSA camera system was that she had a theory that existing research vessels were simply too noisy and disruptive for the squid’s temperament.
According to Dr. Widder, the moment the squid swam into view on the tape was electric for the observers. “People started crowding around, shouting, getting pretty excited, but trying not to get too excited,” Dr. Widder told the New York Times. “Because we had to be sure it really was what we thought it was.”
For years, we’ve principally learned about creatures like the giant squid when they washed ashore dead, or when we found beaks stuck in the guts of sperm whales. This new video, collected at 759 meters with an ocean depth of 2,200 meters (2,500 feet and 7,260 feet, respectively), and the dramatic way the squid struck at the lure, are useful data for its hunting practices and preferred living environment. As the NYT notes, the story actually gets more dramatic from there — lightning hit the research vessel just moments after this video was filmed, leading to panic that the strike might have damaged sensitive electronics and corrupted the footage. Luckily, that particular outcome didn’t occur.
With an estimated 80 percent of the ocean depths remaining unexplored, discoveries and finds like this remain to be found and studied. There are still entire species with an awful lot of blank space in their metaphorical Wikipedia pages, despite the fact that we’ve known that they existed, in this case, since antiquity.