That great dream of the deep came true yesterday: the elusive giant squid—the sperm whale warrior, the kraken—was finally caught on film. That film, natch, was promptly released in snippets that overwhelmed the excitable blogworld. It's the only live footage of a giant squid yet captured in its natural habitat, and it was the fruit bore from a long, long quest by one man who couldn't ever shake his love of the ocean's most notorious tentacled behemoth.
That man is Japanese zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera, and he needed two things above all else to finally catch the squid on tape: Time and a bioluminescent lure built by Florida-based oceanographer Edith Widder.
Kubodera was already well-known in giant squid-loving circles for producing the first known footage of giant squid, period: In 2004 and 2006, he captured small giants on tape as they was drawn out of the water—and dying. But he had trouble tracking down a live specimen in the deep. To get better footage of the squid in its natural habitat, Kubodera finally figured he'd have to make the squid come to him.
The bioluminescent jellyfish-like lure that finally caught the squid on film.
That's where Widder comes in. The oceanographer has long used the principles of biomimicry to design bioluminescent lures akin to jellyfish to attract specimens for study. Her popular TED presentation introduced the pop science world to the technique a few years back:
For giant squid bait, Kubodera and Widder crafted a lure built to mimic the Atolla jellyfish, consisting of 16 blue bioluminescent lights. Last year, Widder explained the concept to Treehugger's Jaymi Heimbach:
Finding animals that make light in the ocean is easy. Just drag a net through the water anywhere in the upper 3000 feet and as many as 80-90% of the animals you catch can make light. The biomimetic lure that I developed imitates one of these - a common deep sea jellyfish called Atolla. The lure is just 16 blue lights embedded around the circumference of a round epoxy mold that is shaped like the jelly. When caught in the clutches of a predator the jelly produces a light display that is a pinwheel of light that is basically a call for help. It serves to attract the attention of a larger predator that may attack their attacker thereby affording them an opportunity for escape. This kind of "flashy" bioluminescent display is called a burglar alarm because just like an alarm it attracts attention, so I thought it might work to lure predators into the field of view of a camera.
And it works like a charm. Widder says that "the very first time we turned on that pinwheel display it attracted a squid over six feet long that is so new to science it can't be placed in any known scientific family. I couldn't have asked for a better proof of concept."
Well, she could have, seeing as how her bioluminescent technology has now snared the most sought-after deep sea creature in existence.
The team still had to sweat to cash in, however; just dangling a high-tech biomimetic lure thousands of leagues under wasn't enough. Kubodera employed a submersible equipped with near-infrared beams, so as to avoid startling his subject.
According to the Toronoto Star, he logged 55 dives and hundreds of hours until the big moment. The Star reports that "when a hazy outline appeared on the on-board camera, the crew risked turning on the bright white beams — and were able to film several minutes of an Architeuthis just metres away."
It was Kubodera's Steve Zissou-finding-the-shark moment.
“It was stunning. I couldn’t have dreamt that it would be so beautiful,” he said.