It’s been just seven years since marine biologists captured the first video of a giant squid in the wild, off the coast of Japan. In June, scientists captured a second video, this time of the creature’s hunting behaviors. And this colossal squid was swimming around in the Gulf of Mexico.
Giant, or colossal, squid have long fascinated humans. Most scientists believe, for example, that these creatures are the source of tales, told by sailors for centuries, of enormous sea monsters or the kraken, who rise from the deep to devour whole ships.
And in fact, researchers estimate the colossal squid could grow up to 43 feet long, with eyes the size of basketballs, making it among the largest creatures on Earth. And yet, until the last decade, many believed this enormous creature was just a myth.
The squid is often confused with the octopus since both have eight arms covered with suction cups which they use to capture and hold prey. However, the squid has two additional “tentacles,” longer than its legs, and two fins attached to its head. That head is triangular shaped rather than round, another difference from the octopus. It also contains a rigid structure known as a “pan,” which serves as a kind of backbone for the squid. Among other things, this pan prevents the squid from performing the amazing contortions often associated with the octopus.
Another reason the colossal squid continues to fascinate is that it remains so elusive. While descriptions of this animal go back as far as Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer from the first century A.D., few have ever glimpsed it in its natural habitat. A few bodies have washed ashore over the centuries, but even these have sometimes been dismissed as hoaxes.
Part of the reason so few have been seen has to do with where the colossal squid lives. Whereas the giant octopus prefers to make its home in underwater caves, the giant squid lives much deeper in the open ocean, in what scientists sometimes call the “midnight zone.” Such areas exist over 3,000 feet down, where no light penetrates. In fact, scientists believe the reason colossal squid are so colossal is that they live at such depths. No one is quite sure why, but creatures at these sea levels tend to grow significantly larger than their relatives who live in shallow waters, a phenomenon known as “deep-sea gigantism.”
This particular colossal squid was filmed as part of a recent deep-sea expedition undertaken by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The project has been dubbed “Journey Into Midnight,” and is meant to study these deep regions in the Gulf of Mexico.
A Promising New Approach
The other reason the colossal squid has rarely been sighted and filmed only twice relates to its apparent light sensitivity. The NOAA mission overcame this problem using a special camera invented by researcher Edie Widder. The camera, which was attached to an electronic jellyfish, emits a red light invisible to most creatures in the midnight zone. Widder suspects that most previous attempts to film the colossal squid have failed because they attempted to use bright lights to illuminate it, and simply frightened the creature away.
This particular encounter was brief, less than a minute, and the squid was only around 12 feet, probably a juvenile. However, the video provided important information about how the colossal squid feeds. It has long been believed, for example, that they float in the sea waiting for prey to come within reach. However, this specimen actually tracked and then attacked the jellyfish bait, suggesting these animals may be far more active than scientists had realized.
Our Own Backyard
Most colossal squids have washed ashore in the East and the only video before now came from an expedition off the coast of Japan. It’s something of a surprise to find one just 100 miles off the coast of New Orleans. Over 80% of our oceans have yet to be explored, especially the deepest depths. So this may not be the last surprise waiting for us beneath the ocean’s surface.