Mark Schrope has written a wonderful piece on the search for the giant squid in his Jan. 25, 2013 posting on Slate.com. It’s a story about adventure, myth, scientific pursuits, and, very cunningly, environmental issues.
I will excerpt a few bits from the piece but I encourage you to read it in its entirety,
Deep-sea biologist Edith Widder was working on a ship positioned off Japan’s Ogasawara Islands when Wen-Sung Chung asked her to step into the lab to see something. Cameras followed her as she got up. This was not unusual, since the Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the Discovery Channel were funding the expedition, which was being conducted from a research yacht named Alucia leased from a billionaire hedge fund owner. Chung was nonchalant, so it didn’t occur to Widder that she was about to see the culmination of a quest that has driven ocean explorers for more than a century. She thought maybe it was going to be video of a cool shark.
The purpose of the expedition was to capture footage of the enigmatic giant squid in its natural habitat. The animal can grow to 35 feet or longer, and its eye is as big as your head. But it lives about 1,000 feet below the surface and deeper, and it had only been glimpsed a few times at the surface and photographed alive once.
Widder is a world expert on bioluminescence, the light that countless marine animals use to communicate, especially in the dark world of the deep sea.
Schopes introduces a mystery, ‘What is Widder about to see?’, and then doesn’t answer it for several paragraphs while he explains who she is, her area of research, and the legend of the giant squid. Note: A link has been removed.
The giant squid has been the stuff of legend for about as long as people have sailed across oceans. Aristotle and Pliny the Elder described what may have been giant squid, which occasionally wash ashore or end up in fishermen’s nets, and the species is thought to be the origin of the Norwegian kraken myth.
Countless groups in past decades have tried to manufacture giant squid encounters, investing millions, getting all the best advice from the experts, only to come back as failed crusaders. One of the other scientists aboard the Alucia, Tsunemi Kubodera of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, has been hunting giant squid in these waters for years. He managed to capture some still images of one giant squid and video of another after it was caught and brought to the surface. But none of that could compare to video of the animal alive in the deep, a view that would finally allow scientists to begin to understand the mysterious animal.
The expedition has not released expense figures, but it must have cost millions. When Chung, a graduate student at the University of Queensland, brought Widder into the lab and started fast-forwarding through the video, the scientists were already a week into a six-week expedition with nothing significant to show. Producer-types were growing tense.
Apparently, giant squid have a good sense of drama,
Now Widder is the first person to capture footage of a giant squid in its natural habitat. But even she admits that the grainy black-and-white footage, by itself, would have been a little unsatisfying. Some high-def footage would be the ultimate satisfaction. The drama-savvy squid would come through again.
Seven days after the first Medusa footage of a giant squid, Kubodera was in the clear sphere of a Triton submersible with pilot Jim Harris and NHK cameraman Tatsuhiko “Magic Man” Sugita when it happened. Kubodera was exploiting a different hypothesis: that the elusive squid find their prey by looking up with those huge eyes to see the faint silhouette of prey.
On Kubodera’s dives, the team tied a smaller, diamondback squid to the front of the sub and wrapped the bait around foam so that it would sink slower. Up and down, up and down the sub had gone for hours, using another low-light camera.
A giant squid latched on at 2,000 feet. As it drifted down, Harris matched the descent to keep the squid in full camera view. After the first few minutes they had flipped on the big lights, thinking the squid would flee, but it was committed to the bait. The sub’s maximum safe depth is 3,300 feet. Had the squid held on that far, Harris would have had to hit the brakes and the squid would have dropped out of view. But instead, at the last minute—3,000 feet—the squid swam off, so they got the entire encounter on film.…
“I’ll never forget how beautiful it was,” says Harris. “It looked like it was covered in gold leaf.” That was a surprise to everyone because the dead ones certainly hadn’t looked like that. They were pasty. Kubodera says it was like seeing an entirely different animal.
Once Schrope has established the adventure aspect and revealed a giant squid covered in gold while, incidentally, establishing Widder’s credentials as a scientist and lover of marine life, there’s this,
For Widder, deep exploration remains a delight, but it’s no longer the primary focus of her career. In 2005, she left her longtime research post at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to found the Ocean Research and Conservation Association [ORCA], headquartered in a scenic old Coast Guard station on the Fort Pierce inlet. She wanted to take a step away from academia, where scientists are expected to stay relatively quiet in public and avoid anything that smacks of activism.
Widder had been growing increasingly overwhelmed by the environmental decline she was seeing, particularly pollution in coastal waters and estuaries, which are plagued by the polluted runoff of a Florida lifestyle dependent on constant growth and lots of fertilizer.
It gets better,
… She wants to wipe away the fallacy that pollution is an amorphous, intractable problem by gathering the information needed to pinpoint key problems. [emphasis mine] The group wants to create the aquatic equivalent of weather maps. Red shows polluted waters, blue the areas in the best shape. If people know the spot their kids swim in is in the red, they’ll take much more notice, she reasons. Perhaps more importantly, tourists would gravitate to cleaner waters if they could, creating a strong motivation for improvements.
Already the project has had success. [emphasis mine] Mapping the pollution in a stretch of Indian River Lagoon—Widder’s home and her office are both on the lagoon—she was surprised to find that two canals came up blue in a field of red. After some checking, the team learned that the golf course on those canals had switched to better environmental practices. They were preventing mowed grass clippings and runoff from the course from making it into the water. It was the perfect example for the local government, and in short order, a new fertilizer ordinance was passed.
The pièce de résistance,
They seem a world apart, but to Widder, the deep-sea exploration for fantastic creatures and the coastal environmental work guided by microbes are intimately tied. Not just because it’s all one big sea. Attention from the higher profile deep-sea work gives her a bully pulpit for focusing attention on things people don’t want to hear about, like water pollution. “I don’t want to hear about that stuff either,” she says. “But we’ve got to deal with it.” …
Too often in environmental stories writers and activists, in an attempt to communicate the seriousness of the issues, project a sense of doom. Necessary in the early days, the time has come to change the tone otherwise there’s a risk of inculcating hopelessness (some might say it’s already happening), which is the last thing we need. As Widder says, ” … we’ve got to deal with it.”
Very nicely done Mr. Schrope and Dr. Widder!
You can find more about ORCA here, by the way, the story has videos of the giant squid, and Discovery Channel (which broadcast the documentary on Jan. 27, 2013) also has information about the giant squid. Canadians are not allowed to view the video on the US website, we are required to visit the .ca website.
ETA Mar. 20, 2013: Danish scientists have determined that all giant squid no matter where they are found are related as per a Mar. 19, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,
The giant squid is one of the most enigmatic animals on the planet. It is extremely rarely seen, except as the remains of animals that have been washed ashore, and placed in the formalin or ethanol collections of museums. But now, researchers at the University of Copenhagen leading an international team, have discovered that no matter where in the world they are found, the fabled animals are so closely related at the genetic level that they represent a single, global population, and thus despite previous statements to the contrary, a single species worldwide.
Tags: Aristotle, bioluminescence, Denmark, Discovery Channel, Edith Widder, giant squid, Japan Broadcasting Commission, Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, Jim Harris, Kraken, Mark Schrope, NHK, Ocean Research and Conservation Association, ORCA, Pliny the Elder, Tatsuhiko “Magic Man” Sugita, Tsunemi Kubodera, University of Copenhagen, University of Queensland, Wen-Sung Chung