When Edie Widder saw the giant squid come into view for the first time, its tentacles splayed as it tried to attack the electronic jellyfish lure in front of the underwater camera, she felt a sense of vindication.
After years of trying to develop ways to observe deep-sea animals, the CEO and senior scientist at the Florida-based Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA), had finally figured out the key. The special camera system she developed, called Medusa, emits a red light invisible to most creatures living in "midnight zone," some 3,280 feet below the ocean's surface, where it’s pitch black.
Giant squids have the biggest eyes of any animal that we know—and they’re extremely sensitive, so it’s not surprising we’ve rarely seen them, she says.
"We go down with these exploration platforms, and submersibles, and remote-operated vehicles that have these blazing white lights on them. These animals are going to spook naturally,” she says. “We understand that well enough on land. When we want to observe nocturnal animals we don't go out with huge spotlights to do it. But for some reason it's kind of a difficult concept in the deep ocean." (Learn more about giant squids' basketball-size eyes.)
The Medusa gets around this problem with its red lights, which giant squid don’t see. It worked once before, capturing the image of a giant squid off the coast of Japan in 2012. It was the first-ever video recording of a live giant squid in the wild.
On the hunt
The new sighting is further proof of concept. On June 19, the Medusa took the first-ever recording of a live giant squid in U.S. waters, about a hundred miles southeast of New Orleans. For Widder, it’s confirmation that the giant squid is not as mysterious as we once thought.
The giant squid sighting came as a surprise to Widder and the other explorers on the team. And its unexpected behavior gives new insight into how it hunts.
"It was incredibly exciting to see that squid actually tracking and hunting the electronic jellyfish," Widder says. It was swimming alongside the lure for a while before it attacked—a surprise because researchers had long expected it hunted by sitting and waiting for prey simply to swim by it.
"Now we're learning the very first we've ever known about how it survives," Widder says.
Tentacle in the darkness
It was about 20 hours into the recording of Medusa's fifth deployment when scientist Nathan Robinson spotted the giant squid's tentacle, reaching through the dark amid the usual shrimp and other small animals on the screen. Its entire body came into view as it tried grabbing the electronic jellyfish. When it realized it wouldn't make much of a meal, the squid darted away.
The entire interaction lasted less than 30 seconds.
Robinson didn't say anything as he stared at the screen, but the look on his face told Widder he had seen something amazing. She and the others rushed to join him.
The creature was about 10 to 12 feet long—small for a giant squid, which can reach upward of 40 feet. They needed confirmation to be sure of what they had seen. (Related: Could giant squid grow as long as a school bus?)
They were trying to send images of their find to Michael Vecchione, a cephalopod expert at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, but strong squalls had left them without internet. Then lightning literally struck.
As brown and yellow smoke billowed up from the ship's antenna, now laying in pieces across the deck, the team rushed to make sure they hadn't lost the rare footage of the giant squid. It was still intact, and when they were able to get the video to him, Vecchione gave them the confirmation they needed.
Now, Widder laughs at her team's luck.
"The fact that there is a creature so large, so magnificent, and so wondrously strange living in our own deep waters, and we've never even observed it alive, it's a huge deal," she says.
"To coin a phrase that many people were saying, it was like lightning struck twice."