We love tales about monsters.
Especially monsters that dwell in the dark, and have only been glimpsed alive in grainy, murky pictures or videos. But recent footage of the legendary giant squid — including a new video captured during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition on June 19 — shows the elusive cephalopods likely aren’t beasts of horror. They’re a somewhat cautious, though huge, deep sea species.
“When we think of the giant squid we think of the Kraken dragging sailors to their deaths and images of doom,” said marine biologist Nathan Robinson, who helped seek out and find the recent giant squid.
“We think we’re out hunting for this monster,” added Robinson, director of the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas. “But I don’t think the term ‘monster’ is true at all.”
Instead, Robinson spied a quiet, almost pensive creature, seeking food. “It’s almost shy,” he said, noting how the squid carefully laid its arms on a flashing, electronic lure (meant to mimic a jellyfish), before quickly discerning there was no meal at all, and propelled itself back into the dark, whence it came.
“It immediately jets away in almost a peaceful way,” Robinson said.
Big…or maybe we should say “giant” news! A few days ago, we posted about how Journey into Midnight expedition team was hunting for giant squid in Gulf of Mexico. Well, they found one… Take a break from #Okeanos live video for the full story: https://t.co/HAdRebectL pic.twitter.com/6cNVH2b0IM
— NOAA Ocean Explorer (@oceanexplorer) June 21, 2019
According to the still-limited footage captured, the giant squids aren’t anything resembling exceptionally violent beasts. And that they could pose a danger to humans, as depicted in works of fiction, is fantasy.
“That’s just nonsense,” said Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian Institution. Vecchione scrutinized Robinson’s new footage to confirm that the species in question was indeed a giant squid.
“We did not find a monster,” wrote Duke University biologist Sönke Johnsen, in a blog about the new footage. Johnsen joined Robinson on the expedition.
Yet what the researchers did find was a creature, that while not exactly a monster, can grow into the length of a four-story building. But most everything about the giant squids’ behavior is still pieced-together, and largely suspected rather than concretely known.
“Most of what we know is just guesswork,” explained Vecchione.
In short, though the squids don’t appear to be monster-like, questions about the giant squid still abound.
Mysteries of the deep
The new footage shows a younger and small giant squid, some 10 to 12 feet in length. Scientists attracted the squid to a specialized lure developed by legendary marine biologist Edie Widder, which uses LED lights to mimic a glowing jellyfish in distress.
Widder previously used the device, called the Medusa, to capture the first ever video of a giant squid in 2012. “That was considered the holy grail of natural history photography,” Widder told Mashable last year.
The device, with a low-light camera attached, is well-designed to capture deep sea behavior. Unlike the loud engines of many Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), the Medusa is quiet and only emits a spectrum of red light sea creatures cannot see. The animals are less inclined to flee from the unobtrusive instrument, is the idea.
To attract more giant squids, it might behoove biologists to continue using the Medusa — or an updated version of the instrument.
“If you wanted to find out more about giant squids, you would probably want to use Edie’s machine,” said the Smithsonian’s Vecchione.
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“There’s really nothing we know about these animals,” added Robinson, noting that scientists have largely learned about the squids by studying massive, dead squid bodies that have floated to the ocean surface.
Where do the giant squids live?
They’ve been spotted dead, mostly dead, or on video in disparate oceans all over the planet, in waters off of India, Spain, the Gulf of Mexico, and Japan. But it’s unknown if the tentacled creatures migrate around, or predominantly inhabit certain waters, explained Robinson.
It’s also unclear what depths they usually inhabit. The recent footage proved the squids hunt at around 2,500 feet beneath the surface. But they might also live much deeper, perhaps some 10,000 feet down, in the lightless ocean.
“We honestly don’t know at this point,” said Robinson.
Do they swim through the seas alone?
The available footage suggests the giant squids live solitary lives at sea. “That’s another guess,” said Vecchione. But perhaps the animals meet up somewhere to mate, in great squid aggregations.
Though, it’s unknown how they even locate each other in the boundless, dark seas. “How do they find themselves in the pitch black of the ocean?” wondered Robinson.
What’s life like for a newly born giant squid?
“Their whole early life history is essentially an open book at this point,” said Vecchione.
When the squids hatch they’re basically microscopic, he explained. And then — out of sight of any human camera — they grow into huge, extraordinary creatures.
How do the giant squids hunt?
Here, the footage provides some answers. It’s unlikely the squids just wait listlessly for something to swim by, noted Vecchione.
Rather, it appears they seek out glowing prey in the deep water, like the radiant lure. “These videos indicate they’re pretty active,” said Vecchione.
“These guys are active predators,” agreed Robinson. “They’re going out cruising and looking for food.”
How many giant squids might dwell in the deep ocean?
It’s pretty uncertain, explained Vecchione. One theory supposes that human deep sea fishing has diminished the giant squids’ food stocks, so their populations could be decreasing. The squids might also prove vulnerable to pollution or other human impacts, said Robinson, noting that the recent squid was found within sight of an oil drilling platform. “The animal could be on the verge of extinction — we simply don’t know,” said Robinson.
Conversely, with vastly diminished sperm whale populations (sperm whales devour giant squids), perhaps the squid populations are now exploding.
“Maybe there’s a whole bunch more than there used to be,” wondered Vecchione. “But that’s just a guess, too.”