Picture a creature taller than a four story house. How is it possible that something so large was never observed in its natural habitat until 2012? Could it be that they are very rare? If there were only a handful in the vast reaches of the ocean then it might not be so surprising but in fact, based on the number of giant squid beaks found in the stomachs of sperm whales, there are believed to be millions of giant squid living in the depths of the ocean.

Giant Squid and Sperm Whale

Display of sperm whale and giant squid battling in the Museum of Natural History. Photo Credit Michael Goren, New York

It turns out the reason we’ve never seen one of these giants in its natural habitat before now is because we visit that habitat so rarely. When we do visit, we do it in such a way that it’s the equivalent of plowing through the wilderness in a Sherman tank and then wondering why we don’t see any wildlife. The bright lights and noisy thrusters on most of our exploration platforms are scaring away the shy dwellers of the depths. Many of the deep sea’s inhabitants have evolved exquisitely sensitive eyes for detecting dim flashes and glows of bioluminescence – the language of light that animals in the dark depths use to lure and locate food, to attract mates and to distract and avoid predators. The giant squid has enormous eyes the size of soccer balls to aid in the detection of these dimmest of lights, but without eyelids or irises to protect them from a bright lights their only option when encountering our search lights in the sea is to run away.

Giant Squid Lecture at Vancouver Aquarium

Bioluminescent jellyfish, Atolla wyvillei, was the inspiration for the optical lure.

Knowing this I figured out a way to explore the depths unobtrusively that made our giant squid hunt off Japan in 2012 a triumph where so many attempts before us had failed. I was invited to join this multimillion dollar outing because of the success I had demonstrated for a new method of deep sea exploration – one that focused on attracting animals instead of scaring them away. In order to be able to see without being seen, I developed a deep-sea camera called the Eye-in-the-Sea that used a waveband that was invisible to deep sea dwellers.

Giant squid lure

Optical lure used to attract giant squid.

In the early tests with this camera I used dead fish as bait. However dead prey only attracts scavengers and as I wanted to attract active predators I also developed an optical lure that imitated a certain type of bioluminescent display that I thought might be attractive to predators. It turned out to be very attractive – especially to squid – and the key to one of the most thrilling moments of my life – capturing the first video of the “Kraken” in its deep sea lair.

Meet Dr. Widder and hear about her adventures first hand at The Kraken Revealed taking place September 3, 2014 from 9-10 am. Tickets are $10 a person and are on sale now. This event will also be live streamed on the Aquarium’s YouTube channel for those that can’t attend in person.

Blog post submitted by Dr. Widder, a biologist and deep-sea explorer who has been exploring the depths of the ocean for more than 30 years. She is a certified submersible pilot who has made hundreds of dives into the deep sea. Her research involving submersibles and bioluminescence – the light made by animals in the ocean – has been featured in numerous television productions including shows for BBC, PBS, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic television.

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