Editors Note: This story originally aired on July 31, 2019
Sailing on a research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico last month to study deep sea creatures that make their own light – like jellyfish, anglerfish and shrimp – a team of scientists worked long hours and grabbed naps when they could.
One day, around noon, University of South Florida St. Petersburg marine biologist Heather Judkins was about to doze off for a couple of hours when she heard a knock on the door.
“I love pods of dolphins. But I was like, I hope they are not waking me up for a pod of dolphins,” Judkins recalled.
“So I go to the door and my colleague Megan was saying, ‘They think they have giant squid! We need you to identify it.’"
Until now, a live, giant squid had only been seen on video once before, off the coast of Japan in 2012.
Researchers had lured it to a submerged video camera, attached to a light-up device called the Medusa.
Created by Edie Widder, founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Foundation, the Medusa was plunged 2,500 feet below the water’s surface.
“Almost on a little arm or extension of it, there is what we call this e-jelly. And it is just a series of LED lights that will flash in different patterns. It resembles a jellyfish, for the most part, in this panicked pattern,” explained Judkins.
“And it is set to do that every so often. So as this is sitting there doing its little "I-am-panicked" kind of thing electronically, we hope it is attracting organisms to come over to check it out or possibly eat it if they think it is food.”
Over the course of the two-week June trip in the Gulf of Mexico, the Medusa captured more than 160 hours of video, including sharks, swordfish, and some shrimp that “spew” their bioluminescence – or self-created light – as a way of scaring off would-be predators, she said.
But the most significant sight was a 12-foot juvenile giant squid, which was the first ever seen in U.S. waters.
“It was like Christmas for us,” Judkins said.
In a black and white video, which went viral, the giant squid can be seen scoping out the e-jelly. It extends its tentacles, then its arms move toward the e-jelly.
“It then looks like it is going to eat something and then it says, ‘Oh no,’ it is not, and it goes back and kind of swims away off camera,” Judkins said.
The video lasts just about 25 seconds, but it reveals a lot about the behavior of giant squid, which have rarely been seen alive.
"We do not know how many giant squid there are. They have been found around the world. We know they are circumglobal in their distribution. They are pretty elusive only because they live deep,” Judkins said.
“It is not that they are some mysterious monster. There is just lots of water in the deep sea. We know sperm whales eat them. We have seen them in that manner, as beak remains in sperm whales' stomachs. So we know that they get eaten a lot. We think the populations are pretty stable or pretty large to support these large whales around the world."
The giant squid is the largest of cephalopods, which include squid, octopus and their relatives. As adults they can grow to the size of a school bus, some 40-45 feet long.
A giant squid also has the largest eye for an animal its size. Just how big?
"The size of your head, actually," Judkins said.
They live an environment that is cold and dark, about 100 times deeper than a recreational scuba diver would swim.
The temperature that deep is around 37 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).
In this environment, some sea creatures create their own light just as fireflies do. Examples include the anglerfish, which attracts prey with a bioluminescent lure protruding from its forehead.
Other animals use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism, like shrimp that spew it out “in the hope that the predator will go after the bioluminescence and the shrimp will get away,” Judkins explained.
Judkins and colleagues collected data using a trawl net, a remotely operated vehicle the size of a small car, and the Medusa, which floats in the water and records video for 30 hours at a time.
Judkins has been studying the deep sea since 2011, particularly an area known as the mid-water column, the vast area between the surface and the sea floor, about which little is known.
“We barely know who is down there. We are starting to get a hint of who. But now we need to know what is the impact from anthropogenic sources – so if it is climate change, or ocean acidification. God forbid some other oil spill occurs. What are the impacts to this mid-water animal group?” Judkins said.
“We don’t know what is going to happen as our oceans are changing.”
She added that she hopes the viral video will encourage people to fund more scientific research.
“Now we have seen it a couple of times. We still don’t know much about its life history. We don’t know what they eat, really. There are many questions,” she said.
"Lots of folks love sea turtles and dolphins and whales. I think my giant squid get put in that category as well because they are kind of this charismatic megafauna. You hear that in science a lot, because it is a hook to have the public be made aware of these animals and organisms that are hanging out in the ocean that they might not ever be able to see."