The giant squid has long been considered a mythological monster of the deep ocean, backed up only be long-at-sea fishermen’s accounts. Then in 2004, a photographer snapped the first stills of the enormous cephalopod, followed by the first video footage of one of the creatures at the ocean’s surface in 2006. No one has captured footage of the elusive giant squid in its natural habitat deep beneath the surface—until now.
The delay is understandable when you consider that these near-30-foot-long invertebrates inhabit 3000-foot deep water. Giant squid (Architeuthis dux) are thought to live in colder regions of the Pacific and Atlantic, although their distribution is not totally known. Swimming in the frigid, black waters, their huge eyeballs—the biggest of any animal—allow them to detect light and spot their jellyfish prey.
To shoot the unprecedented footage, a group of scientists and researchers delved into the world of the giant squid—and tricked the animals into thinking their equipment was prey.
During their six-week voyage last summer off of Japan’s Ogasawara archipelago, roughly 600 miles south of Tokyo, they spent some 285 hours diving to depths near 3,000 feet in their submersible, Triton, and deployed a specially crafted camera—a system named Medusa. They equipped their camera with imitational bioluminescence, mimicking the glowing aura jellyfish radiate when they’re being attacked in the ocean abyss. The lure worked: Squid attacked repeatedly in search of a meal. To ensure the camera lights didn’t scare off the deep-sea dwellers, the normally bright recording light was replaced with a dim red one, which has a long wave length that few animals can see in the deep ocean.
The set up was so successful that the crew reportedly viewed a whopping five giant squid.
The footage helped overturn some long-held assumptions about giant squid behabior. Disproving the notion that they’re passive creatures that float along, one squid aggressively attacked the camera as it would attack a jellyfish. Through the attack, the team was able to get ample video footage of the giant squid’s eight long tentacles and two arms, as it meandered in a “fan-dance”-remnant movement.
Additionally, their coloration surprised the scientists. Squid previously observed floating at the surface and those described in lore were known to have a bright red hue, but there squid were a distinct, vibrant metallic grey and silver.
This YouTube clip briefly shows one of the squid’s color and aggressiveness:
The team included scientists and videographers from both the United States and Japan, and the Discovery Channel and Japan Broadcast Commission funded the expedition. Edith Widder, a U.S. oceanographer and founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, developed the Medusa camera system that led to the team’s success. Tsunemi Kubodera, a zoologist of Japan’s National Museum and Science, accompanied Widder underwater in the team’s submersible, and had been on the voyage that captured still photograph and surface video footage of giant squid a few years back. Billionaire Ray Dalio donated his 185-foot research vessel for the voyage.
Widder hopes that the video footage of the giant squid will open the door for future deep-sea research. “But we really have only explored 5% of the ocean, and I think we’re exploring that in the wrong way,” she told NPR. “I think we’ve scared a lot of animals away. So what about the stuff that doesn’t float when it dies?”
For scientists who only study giant squid, being able to study the real creature and not dead specimens is an incredible breakthrough.
Want more? The video, “Monster Squid: The Giant is Real” will air on the Discovery Channel this coming Sunday at 8 PM ET as the finale of their "Curiosity" series.
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A brief field note details the process of capturing photographs from a 2006 voyage off the Ogasawara Islands.