Luring the Giant Squid

Ocean explorer Edith Widder has a way with reclusive sea animals

a giant squid in the ocean

For most of humanity’s seagoing history, the giant squid has been the unicorn that actually exists. Thanks to the occasional dead carcass that became entangled in fishing nets or floated ashore, people at least knew of Architeuthis dux’s existence and intimidating proportions—up to three-dozen feet long, with eyes the size of a human head. But no one had ever seen, let alone filmed, a giant squid in its native deep-sea habitat until 2012, when an expedition using technology devised by Edith Widder, J73, finally captured the mythical kraken on film.

Widder, a distinguished ocean explorer—winner of a MacArthur “genius grant”—employs subtle engineering tricks to study marine life. “I’ve always felt like we were doing it wrong, in ways that scared the animals off,” she says. “I wanted to explore unobtrusively.” That’s what led her to design a squid-friendly camera called Eye in the Sea.

Widder’s specialty is bioluminescence, the light that marine creatures emit to attract prey or mates in the deep, dim reaches of the sea. Widder theorized that some jellyfish also use bioluminescence when under attack, in a last-ditch effort to attract a larger predator that might drive off the initial attacker. Widder’s Eye in the Sea is a noiseless camera with a lure that mimics the bioluminescent patterns of a jellyfish under attack. She first tested it in 2004 in the Gulf of Mexico (very near where BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill would happen six years later), and it attracted a six-foot specimen of a previously unknown squid species in less than 90 seconds.

That got the attention of a group of scientists planning an expedition, funded by Discovery Channel and the Japan Broadcasting Commission, to capture the elusive giant squid on film. A 2010 “squid summit” brought together a group of squid experts—“and me,” Widder says—to talk logistics.

The expedition to Japan’s Ogasawara Islands had to be postponed for a year after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, but the team found its quarry last year. Using Medusa, a more advanced version of Eye in the Sea, they captured amazing full-on footage of the giant squid on the hunt for jellyfish and moving about, tentacles on display. Widder, who was watching from the boat, was as blown away as the rest of the crew. “I think I said ‘Oh my God!’ at least five times.”

When it appeared on Discovery Channel in January, the squid footage caused a sensation beyond the scientific world. Widder reports that squid enthusiasts sent in pictures of squid-shaped cakes, piñatas and even tattoos. That helped take the sting out of what Widder regards as sensationalism on the part of Discovery. Inspired by the doomsday creatures in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Discovery originally titled the special Giant Squid: The Monster Is Real. After Widder objected, the network changed that to Monster Squid: The Giant Is Real. “I guess they thought that was judging the size rather than the morals of it,” Widder says.

While deep-sea squids have given Widder her highest public profile to date, most of her work in recent years has focused on waters closer to shore. Widder’s interest in marine biology goes back to age 11, when her mathematician parents (one of them Tufts lecturer Vera A. Widder) took the family on a world tour during a sabbatical year. Exploring coral reefs in the Fiji Islands gave Widder the bug, which carried through her career at Tufts, a Harvard medical school research lab and graduate school at UC Santa Barbara.

During graduate school, Widder became an expert on light-measuring instruments, thanks to her interest in gadgets. That took her out to sea on research expeditions to monitor data collection. And once she ventured into the water to take measurements herself—starting with a dip 880 feet below the surface of the Santa Barbara Channel in 1984—she was stunned by the brilliance of the underwater display.

“It was the best light show on the planet,” she says. “Knowing how much energy it took for sea animals to do that, I couldn’t imagine that bioluminescence was not the most important thing in the ocean. So why weren’t more people studying it? I went back and couldn’t just say, ‘Wow, like, everything glows!’ There had to be a way of quantifying it, which appealed to my interest in engineering—developing instruments to quantify and understand it.”

Widder has since worked on ways to monitor pollution by measuring the bioluminescence of microorganisms. In 2005, she left Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution to found the nonprofit Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), which does both research and advocacy.

One project under way is mapping pollution in Florida waters with the Widder-designed Kilroy water-quality monitor, work that got a boost from her 2006 MacArthur grant. The oceans are in ever greater need of protection, according to Widder. “We have to act now if we want anything to be left,” she says. “I feel like the ocean is being destroyed before we can discover what all is in it. We might be losing a cure for cancer, and who knows what else.”

While that work continues, there’s talk of an even more ambitious sequel to last year’s giant-squid expedition. Widder says she’s heard from several groups thinking about expeditions to Antarctica to find and film an even rarer prize: the colossal squid. And that just might give Widder a chance to connect up several strands of interest. “Giant squids are longer, but colossal squids are the biggest in mass.” She adds that they also have a property that merits her undivided attention: “They’re bioluminescent.”

This article first appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine.

David Menconi is a freelance journalist and the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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