On June 19, Nathan Robinson was on board a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, surveying footage taken by the Medusa, a deep sea camera system. Shrimp, jellyfish, lantern sharks—the usual suspects—floated across the screen. But then, something utterly unusual crept into view: a tubular creature that suddenly unfurled its tentacles, wrapping them around the Medusa. Robinson raced to alert his colleagues to what he thought he had seen: a giant squid.
“His eyes were just about popping out of his head,” Edith Widder, the biologist who developed the Medusa, tells Kayla Epstein of the Washington Post. “He didn't even say anything, and I knew immediately he had seen something amazing on the video.”
Researchers crowded around to look at the footage. They suspected that the animal, which spanned an estimated 10 to 12 feet long and had been hovering some 2,500 feet below the water’s surface, was a juvenile giant squid. But the team wanted one of the world’s leading squid experts to weigh in, so they reached out to Michael Vecchione, a zoologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. According to Brooke Jarvis of the New York Times, Vecchione confirmed that the creature was indeed a giant squid, or Architeuthis.
The discovery marks the first time that a living giant squid has been filmed in American waters. Generally speaking, though they have long been ubiquitous as monsters in maritime lore, giant squids are rarely seen in their natural habitats. Most of what scientists know about the animal is based on carcasses that have washed ashore on beaches, or squid beaks that have been found in the bellies of sperm whales.
The first recording of a living giant squid was made in 2006, after researchers working off Japan’s Ogasawara Islands managed to hook one specimen using bait and reel it to the surface of the water. But the species was not filmed in its natural habitat until 2012, when the Medusa was first deployed in Japanese waters. The camera system offered an important innovation over submersibles and remote operated vehicles, which typically rely on bright white light to navigate through the blackness of the deep sea. Suspecting that this light was frightening creatures that had evolved to live in the dark, Widder developed a system that uses red light, which is invisible to most deep-sea creatures.
The Medusa also relies on an LED optical lure that mimics the bioluminescent glow that deep-sea jellyfish emit as a sort of “defensive burglar alarm.” When they are captured by a predator, the squishy creatures light up in the hope of attracting a larger predator to eat the first one, or perhaps to simply frighten the original predator into thinking that a larger animal is on its way.
The recently-spotted giant squid certainly seemed intrigued by the LED bait; as the footage shows, it grabs the lure and then, perhaps deciding that this strange creature was not worth its time, retreats quickly back into the darkness.
Widder tells Epstein that June 19 marked “one of the more amazing days at sea [she has] ever had”—and not only because of the squid discovery. Around 30 minutes after the creature first appeared on Robinson’s screen, a starboard instrumentation antenna on board the research vessel was hit by lightning, prompting fears that the remarkable footage was lost. Then, the captain alerted the team that a waterspout—or a tornado that whirls over water—was forming off the port bow. Fortunately, no one on board the ship was harmed. Neither was the squid footage.
Writing on the website of the NOAA, which funded the research expedition, Widder explains that the giant squid sighting is helping researchers learn more about these mysterious creatures of the deep. For one, it seems reasonable to assume that giant squids really does not like the bright light used by many exploration vehicles. “We found the squid after only five Medusa deployments,” Widder notes, “despite the fact that thousands of [remote operated vehicles] and submersible dives in the Gulf of Mexico have not done so.”
What’s more, the giant squid—for centuries branded as a “monster” that lurked in remote waters—was swimming around 100 miles southeast of New Orleans, not far from one of the world’s largest deepwater oil rigs.
“Our perspective as humans has changed,” Widder writes. “What were once monsters to be feared are now curious and magnificent creatures that delight. We like to feel that science and exploration has brought about this change, making the world less scary and more wondrous with each new thing we learn.”