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Giant squid video resulted from biologist's invented lure

A giant squid caught on video in the wild for the first time was made possible by marine biologist Edith Widder's custom-built bioluminescent sphere, which lured in the elusive animal.

January 12, 2013|By Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times
  • A giant squid is attracted to the "e-jellyfish," a bioluminsecent lure invented by marine biologist Edith Widder.
A giant squid is attracted to the "e-jellyfish," a bioluminsecent… (Discovery Channel )

Some people use worms to attract fish. Others use intricately painted lures or feathery flies.

To get the catch of a lifetime, marine biologist Edith Widder built a bioluminescent sphere that mimics the frenzied pinwheel display of a panicked jellyfish.

Her soccer-ball-sized creation enticed a giant squid to swim near waiting undersea cameras. The resulting video, shot 2,000 feet below the North Pacific Ocean, about 260 miles south of Tokyo, was the first to capture the elusive creature in action and became an Internet sensation this week.

"It was just amazing," said Widder, who has been exploring the deep sea for more than three decades. "I still don't get tired of looking at that footage."

Giant squid, which can grow longer than 40 feet, are one of the most mysterious species on Earth. They live 1,500 to 3,000 feet beneath the surface in the ocean canyons near the edges of continents, making them nearly impossible to study. Squid experts believe their population probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands to millions.

Giant squid carcasses are occasionally found floating on the ocean surface or washed up on shore, but it wasn't until 2004 that a giant squid was first photographed in its natural environment. Three years later, a Japanese researcher brought a specimen up to the surface and filmed while it dragged behind his boat.

Until now, no one had ever seen live footage of the giant squid in the wild.

Widder, who founded the Ocean Research and Conservation Assn. in Fort Pierce, Fla., joined the giant squid hunt in 2010 at the behest of Discovery Channel. The network was eager to capture the animal on film and gathered an array of deep-sea explorers to help it.

Widder was an obvious choice.

In 2006, she filmed a deep-sea squid that was entirely new to science. In 2007, she taped deep-sea sharks as they rummaged for food in the sand — a behavior never seen before.

Both discoveries were made possible by her custom-built bioluminescent lures, for which she won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

The key, Widder said, is paying attention to the visual ecology of the sea — it's tricky to sneak up on a creature that has eyes as big as a human head.

"They've been so elusive before because every time we've gone down to explore, they see us coming with our bright white lights," she said.

While other scientists used noisy submersible vehicles in their attempts to film the giant squid, Widder deployed Medusa — a system she co-invented that combines a highly sensitive camera and a "far red" light source with an especially long wavelength that is invisible to most sea creatures, which can see only greens and blues.

There are no motors on the camera to move it through the water, carried by currents, for 30 hours at a time. Instead, it is attached by long lines to a buoy that floats on the ocean surface. A satellite beacon on the buoy helps Widder find the device when she is ready to collect it.

She said she hoped that with no loud sounds or bright lights to scare it away, the giant squid might reveal itself.

And she was right. The second time Widder dropped Medusa deep beneath the ocean surface, it caught sight of a giant squid.

Over the course of six weeks, Widder deployed Medusa nine times and collected five video clips of what she thinks are different giant squid. Those most of the videos caught just an arm or two, she did get one action shot of a squid swirling its thick arms and suckers directly over the camera and wrapping it briefly in a hug.

To entice the squid to pass in front of Medusa, Widder used another one of her inventions — a bioluminescent lure attached to the camera system that she calls the e-jellyfish.

On land, the e-jellyfish looks like a glass sphere stuffed with a tangle of wires. But in the dark of the deep ocean, all that is visible is a swirling, pulsating pattern of blue LED lights that mimics the bioluminescent display of the atolla jellyfish.

Widder said the real jellyfish's light show is triggered when it's caught by a predator. By flashing its lights, the jellyfish attempts to attract a predator of its predator, which may be its only chance for escape.

Giant squid feast on smaller squid that feast on atolla jellyfish, so Widder thought the giant squid would heed her e-jellyfish's call.

"It took a little bit to convince me that I was really seeing a giant squid," she said. "It kind of sunk in a little at a time, but it was thrilling."

Michael Latz, who studies bioluminescence at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, said that other scientists have talked about using far-red illumination to view animals without disturbing them, but Widder is the first to have implemented it successfully.

He also described her use of the luminescent lure as "novel."

"To my knowledge it is pretty unique, especially in the context of looking at animal behavior," he said.

The video will appear on the Discovery Channel in late January during a program called "Monster Squid: The Giant is Real."

Widder is already plotting her next foray with Medusa and the e-jellyfish. She'll probably head back to the Bahamas to take more video of deep-sea shark behavior, but after that, she'd like to go after the colossal squid.

"That's my next adventure," she said.

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