Visiting the squatters' home

This article originally appeared on Hakai Magazine, an online publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. Read more stories like this at hakimagazine.com.

Just after 10 a.m. on January 6, 2023, in the Southern Ocean, about 700 miles south of Argentina, Matthew Mulrennan's underwater camera captured a unique sighting: there, 570 feet below his ship, a lone squid was captured. propelling itself through the icy water. With its expansive vermilion tentacles, translucent body and faint blue bioluminescent glow, this 12-centimeter-long squid may be the first colossal squid once filmed in its natural environment.

Video footage taken nearly 200 meters below the surface of Antarctica shows what could be a juvenile colossal squid living freely in its natural environment. It is possible that this is not a colossal squid, but another species of closely related glass squid. Video courtesy of Matthew Mulrennan/Kolossal

Mulrennan, a marine scientist and founder of the California-based nonprofit Kolossal, has been working on recording images of wild colossal squids since 2017. Cephalopod experts are convinced Mulrennan filmed a species of glass squid, the scientific family to which colossal squids belong. But they remain unsure whether it was a young colossus or an adult Galiteuthis glacialis, or a previously unknown species in the closely related genus Taonius.

The Antarctic waters where Mulrennan's team spotted the squid were full of marine snow, giving the video a grainy quality reminiscent of the first photos of another little-known cephalopod: the giant squid.

Although both cephalopods are so elusive they are practically legendary – and often compared to the mythical Kraken – colossal squids have larger, heavier bodies and slightly shorter tentacles than their giant brethren. While giant squids were the first photographed And filmed in their natural habitat in 2004 and 2012 respectively, the only sightings of colossal squid were from corpses or animals dragged to the surface.

Until maybe now.


Colossal squids were first scientifically described by zoologist Guy Robson in 1925 after a sperm whale washed up on the Falkland Islands with two colossal squid tentacles in his stomach. Since then, the enormous animals have rarely been captured, photographed or even seen. That's a remarkable feat for a creature taller than a cargo container and with eyes the size of volleyballs. As adults, colossal squids are the largest invertebrates on Earth. They eat Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea bass) and are hunted by sperm whales. When young, colossal squids appear to move closer to the ocean's surface, where they are picked up by penguins, albatrosses, seals and Patagonian toothfish. Little else is known about their behavior; Most clues come from nibbling on fishing lines, examining the stomachs of predators, and the occasional squid corpse washing up on a beach.

William Reid, a marine biologist at Newcastle University in England, was lucky enough to see a colossal squid up close after fishermen unexpectedly netted one in 2005 near South Georgia Island, located between Antarctica and South America . Although the meter-long mantle was too heavy to save, Reid's incomplete 200-kilogram specimen revealed how the hooks and suction cups that line the squid's arms can detach, giving the animal an impressive grip but also easily dislodging from prey and predators . .

In the depths of the ocean, where little light penetrates, Reid suspects that colossal squids are ambush hunters, patiently waiting for prey to come within range and then using their long arms to stuff their catches into their beaks. He says the squid's giant eyes may be adept at seeing bioluminescence, which could warn them of hungry sperm whales heading their way.

Colossal squid have also been documented a few other times. Soviet fishermen caught and photographed the first whole colossal squid in 1981 off the coast of East Antarctica. In 2003, fishermen from New Zealand caught a dead young colossal squid weighing 300 kilograms in Antarctica's Ross Sea, and in 2007 they retrieved a live adult weighing 500 kilograms from a depth of 1,500 meters. And in 2008, Russian scientists caught one further west in the Dumont d'Urville Sea.

But no one has ever seen a colossal squid living undisturbed hundreds of meters below the surface, where it lives naturally. And, as Reid points out, because colossal squids tend to collapse under their own weight when dragged from the high-pressure deep sea, studying them in their natural environment is the only way to understand both their behavior and their fully intact see anatomy.

So from December 2022 to April 2023, Mulrennan and his crew set out on four multi-week voyages from Ushuaia, Argentina, aboard the Ocean attempt, an expedition ship full of tourists, operated by Intrepid Travel. Along with about 200 curious tourists, Mulrennan and the Kolossal team traveled to the South Shetland Islands, South Georgia, the Antarctic Peninsula and other areas below the Antarctic Circle in search of the oversized squid.

As passengers slept and disembarked for day trips to see penguins, whales and the icy terrain of Antarctica, the researchers – including Jennifer Herbig, a doctoral candidate at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador – took turns releasing a tethered underwater camera from one of the ship's gangways fall. in the icy water below.

“We'd put the camera in the water at midnight or 1 a.m., be awake until 4 or 5 a.m., then have to get up at 6 or 7 a.m.,” says Herbig. With the camera dangling up to 400 meters underwater, it became a near-constant effort to keep it from becoming tangled in the sea ice and disappearing into the depths.

In total, the team captured 62 hours of high-definition footage. Along with their potential colossal squid, the scientists discovered a giant volcanic sponge – animals believed to live up to 15,000 years – and dozens of other deep-sea Antarctic species.

It was challenging work made easier by the ship's other passengers, who brought the scientists cookies and hot chocolate during long overnight deployments. Herbig, in turn, fostered the interest of tourists. “They could just look over our shoulders and see what we were doing, so we had to explain some of the science,” she says.

“Every day on the ship I was asked, 'Did you find the squid?'” Mulrennan says. “People really want to know more about these big crack-like species” – especially the ship's chef, who kept joking about cooking the squid when they found it.


Whether the video Mulrennan's team captured turns out to be a juvenile colossal squid or not – that final determination depends on continued studies by squid experts at New Zealand's Auckland University of Technology – the Colossal researchers aren't done with their search yet .

While last year's expedition largely relied on using an underwater camera to film close to the noisy ship, the team hopes to revisit Antarctica as early as November 2024, armed with a much wider range of tools.

Mulrennan wants to upgrade from one underwater camera to as many as a dozen, which he can deploy simultaneously, and he wants to add remote-controlled cameras that can film further from the boat. Another option to improve their technique, Herbig says, would be to purchase longer camera cables so they can peer even deeper into the colossal squid's icy domain. Herbig adds that they can also bring equipment to analyze environmental DNA and measure biomass, allowing the team to study the abundance of creatures that share this deepwater habitat.

With a tattoo on his left arm commemorating zoologist Guy Robson's 1925 sighting of a colossal squid, Mulrennan hopes to lead or inspire a verified underwater recording of a live, wild colossal squid by 2025.

“If finding the giant squid was like landing on the moon, then finding the colossal squid will be like landing on Mars,” he says.

This article first appeared in Hakai Magazine and is republished here with permission.

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