The squid’s eye is trained on the camera, dilating to the size of a saucer as it steadily draws nearer. Its skin looks as soft as satin, rippling delicately as it siphons water into its mantle. Just a few feet under the surface, its long tentacles, each a girthy strip of vermillion tie-dye, sewed up with an endless avenue of suckers, hover listlessly. The slow intake of a diver’s respirator, followed by the tinkle of a stream of bubbles, is the only noise in the video.
It was astonishingly rare: a live specimen showed up in a harbor in Japan, swimming right at the surface in Toyama Bay. A diver, perhaps ill-advisedly, plunged into the water on Christmas Eve and recorded some of the most vivid and close-up footage of a 12-foot-long squid ever seen. The mere sight of its gargantuan, human-like eye, mere inches from the camera, was a discovery on its own.
"I LOST CONTROL OF MY BODY."
The diver, Akinobu Kimura, told The New York Times that the animal "wrapped tentacles around me and I lost control of my body," but he came out of the encounter unscathed. Why it was there, the world’s most mysterious animal, suddenly close enough to touch, no one knew. Some speculated that the animal was injured or dying, while others suggest that warming waters could contribute to higher incidences of strandings — and that sightings like these may become more frequent with the onset of climate change.
When the footage hit the internet, giant squid-mania hit a zenith. A graph of the search term "giant squid" shows an enormous spike just after the footage was released.
One of the first people on the internet to suggest that the video did in fact feature a member of the giant squid family was Dr. Chris Mah, an invertebrate expert with the Smithsonian Institution who runs a popular blog and tracks science communication in both the US and Japan.
"It’s pretty hard to sympathize with a dead, white piece of calamari 30 feet long," said Mah, as an explanation for why squid videos like the most recent one accrue such a captive audience. "But videos like this bring a liveliness, a dynamism to understanding these animals."
People gravitate toward squids, says Mah, because they are, in many ways, like us. Along with octopuses, they are some of the most intelligent marine animals. They have worked out brilliant solutions to some of the most complicated evolutionary problems — like how to survive in the cold waters and immense pressure thousands of feet below the surface, how to see prey in almost pitch-black darkness, and how to travel through the ocean by propelling large jets of water in their wake.
But this wasn’t the first time we’d glimpsed one of the world’s most elusive animals — the first breakthrough happened over a decade ago. It was the morning of September 30th, 2004, and a team of Japanese scientists off the Ogasawara Islands in the North Pacific Ocean had set out to hook a giant squid on a baited fishing line, camera trap attached. Soon enough, they struck gold. For four hours, a camera set up by the scientists took 500 photos — one every 30 seconds — of the giant squid. The squid was 2,950 feet below the surface — a depth of about eight football fields. The squid itself was impressive, too, at 25 feet, which is about as long as a two-story house is tall. Slightly smaller than the average giant squid, the animal appeared to attack the bait in a way scientists hadn’t anticipated — by using its tentacles first as a weapon.
The Japanese photographs were the first milestone in the hunt for the giant squid, which is actually a common name used for a very similar group of species belonging to the family Architeuthidae.
About 20 species of Architeuthidae have been named, though there is some debate among scientists as to whether they can all truly be classified as different species. Very little is known about these animals, and what we do know is mostly about its physiology. The squid has eyes as big as softballs, and a tangle of tentacles that can extend its body up to 43 feet for females and 33 feet for males. It is second in size among invertebrates only to the colossal squid. Its torso, called a mantle, contains its heart, sex organs, a complex brain, and a powerful beak, all flanked by two small fins used for locomotion. It has eight shorter arms that surround two long, flailing tentacles, each with a bulbous cluster of suckers, each lined with a row of sharp, serrated chitin for feeding.
The Japanese photos were just the beginning
The photos taken in Japan were just the beginning in the hunt for footage of the giant squid. For years, scientists had been dangling bait beneath the waves, hoping to attract the elusive deep sea predator but coming up empty-hooked. The effort was once described by marine biologist Richard Ellis as "the most elusive image in natural history." But the real breakthrough came when Edith Widder, an oceanographer who specializes in the bioluminescent light given off by certain deep-dwelling creatures, realized that it wasn’t bait that would attract the squids — it was a specific type of light.
"We’d been exploring the deep sea in wrong way until then," said Widder, who serves as CEO and senior scientist at the Ocean Research & Conservation Association. "We were incredibly noisy, using these big ROVS [remotely operated underwater vehicles] and bright lights."
Stealth was essential, Widder asserted, as she joined a group of scientists at what was to be known as the "Squid Summit," a gathering of giant squid experts from around the world in 2010.
The strategy Widder rigged up was nothing short of ingenious. Rather than luring the animal with bait, she decided to signal to the squid that a large animal was in the area. The signal would tell the giant squid that a good meal was close at hand. This meant creating a synthetic "burglar alarm" display, like the kind that bioluminescent animals like jellyfish give off when they are attacked. In nature, these displays are desperate, last-ditch resorts for help — a bright light in the darkness, calling for some larger predator to come and eat the predator that’s eating you. Simulating that "burglar alarm" would signal to nearby squid that there was something to eat nearby, so Widder developed a new kind of lure, one that could imitate certain bioluminescent displays given off by prey animals, known as the electronic jellyfish.
The e-jelly was the perfect alarm. When it was dropped into the blackness of the deep sea, the LED lights embedded in it flashed. Right next to the e-jelly hung a dead diamondback squid, meant to entice giant squid to stay — which is exactly what a giant squid did. The researchers caught over 20 minutes of the first film of a giant squid ever taken.
"It Looked like it was carved out of metal."
"It was so amazing, it was so different than all of us thought it would look like," said Widder, describing how, when a white light was shown on the creature, it did not look red, as the dead specimens she’d seen had looked.
"This thing was bronze and silver — it looked like it was carved out of metal," she said. "It was so spectacular."
That footage, taken in 2012, took the squid world by storm. It was the first time a squid’s movements had been recorded, and it was featured as a Discovery Channel special in 2013. A surprisingly large cult of squid lovers on the internet took notice.
Lucy Fox, a self-professed "giant squid enthusiast" for over two decades, held one of several giant squid parties when the footage aired.
"When a scientist got the first live footage, I was ready for a party," said Fox, a social worker from a small town in Virginia. "I was totally euphoric, squealing, jumping. I gathered my friends and made a huge fuss of it."
Fox isn’t alone. There’s an entire community of giant squid aficionados spread across all corners of the internet, not unlike the tentacles of the squid itself. The subreddit devoted to squids, r/squid, is almost exclusively devoted to worshipping the giant kind. Posts about historic folklore involving giant squids have accrued thousands of views — most of them without ever featuring a single glimpse of the creature. Squid fandom has spiraled off into an entire sector of tentacled paraphernalia — there’s the homemade 8-foot-long giant squid pillows, available in any style of color imaginable, giant squid mugs, giant squid cufflinks, giant squid hats, giant squid foam figurines, and hand-painted giant squid shoes. You can now live your life surrounded by giant squids, though it’s nearly impossible that you would ever see one alive.
A quick Google search for "giant squid tattoo" garners thousands of hits. One woman, Fiona Solon, of Yukon Territory, Canada, sent me a photo of her full-back giant squid tattoo, adding that she used to care for squid egg sacks when she volunteered at an aquarium in British Columbia. "A seconds-old squid may be the most precious thing I’ve ever seen," she said.
Much of the giant squid’s following is based on its place in mythic lore as a petrifying monster. There was the mythical and monstrous Kraken, a beast spawned from 13th century Icelandic folklore and perfected in its many-tentacled hideousness by Alfred Tennyson, who in 1830 described a giant-armed Kraken slumbering on the ocean floor: There hath he lain for ages, and will lie," until he awakens, roaring from the deep. The giant squid appears in its nefariousness in Moby Dick, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and most recently in H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the Cthulhu, a grotesque figure whose facial tentacles have been rebirthed by way of post-millennial meme. Its lore is bewitching and fantastical, but the first footage of the giant squid showed that its inspiration may be even more so.
At this point, the giant squid has completed its infiltration of popular and literary culture. But that doesn’t mean that people actually care about its survival. In fact, most people know very little about deep sea creatures, or the myriad problems that plague them, says Mah. It may seem obvious, but squid videos are an essential tool for scientists. They also help to prevent the cephalopods from falling into the Jaws trap — if scientists can control the message about the giant squid as people are first introduced to the species, maybe they won’t fear it, and it won’t take decades to reverse a harmful message.
"The attractiveness of videos like this is a way to get a foothold in people’s imaginations," said Mah. "To tell them early that this is not at all something to be feared — perhaps, even, that this is not something to be eaten."
The next step, says Widder, is getting funding for more cameras to take more footage of the giant squid and its behavior in the wild. She’s fundraising now to buy a piece of essential squid-hunting equipment called syntactic foam, basically a giant yellow block that cushions the ROV underwater. Right now, Widder is selling small chunks of the old block, the same one that was grappled by the giant squid in that fateful first footage, as paperweights. Her selling point? In a world where animals are dissected — literally and figuratively, by thousands of hours of observation — that chunk of foam is one of the only human-made things on Earth to have come in contact with a live giant squid.