A big ol' supersquid

Capturing the kraken: the hunt for the elusive giant squid

Image credit: NHK/NEP/Discovery Channel

What technological feats would it take to capture a giant squid and keep it alive?

The first thing anyone knows about giant squid is that they are, well, giant. Yet coming face to mantle with Archie, a young female, I am dumbstruck by her size.

She lurks in the depths of London’s Natural History Museum, surrounded by jars containing centuries-old snakes, platypuses and other creatures. Archie is as dead as her bottled companions; her pigment is long gone, leaving a mass of pale fleshiness. Staring into her glass coffin – which is nearly the length of a London bus – I hope that this is not the closest I will come to meeting a giant squid.

“The deep ocean is a terrifying, wonderful unknown place producing body plans and forms we’re not used to. Quite a lot of deep-​sea creatures look quite alien, and you can imagine that when these creatures would wash up or if they were caught accidentally you would make beasts of them,” says Jon Ablett, who, as curator of molluscs at the museum, was responsible for handling Archie’s preservation after she was accidentally caught by fishermen near the Falkland Islands in 2004.

Ablett reels off the legends of the giant squid: the Scylla in Ancient Greece, the Kraken and Sea Monk in Northern Europe, and similar legends in Caribbean, Chinese and Japanese mythology. We have known that Architeuthis was behind these legends since it was described by Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup in the 1850s, but even today it remains inscrutable.

Archie is one of a handful of intact specimens; researchers often rely on carcasses washed ashore or retrieved from the stomachs of sperm whales. Given the depths of their habitat (~400-1,000m below the surface), catching a glimpse of a live giant squid is a considerable challenge.

The first photographs of a live Architeuthis in its natural habitat were captured in 2004. A dying squid was caught on video in 2006 as it was wrestled to the surface. How did it take so long to get this far?

Edith Widder, CEO of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, describes failed attempts to seek it using submersibles and white lights as “absurd”, particularly given that giant squid live in darkness and have the second-largest eyes of any known animal. It was Widder’s ‘Medusa’ camera system – which uses far-red light beyond the squid’s range of vision – that captured the first video footage of the squid in its natural habitat in 2012. Deep in the Pacific Ocean and accompanied by fellow marine biologists Tsunemi Kubodera and Steve O’Shea, Widder combined the Medusa with a bioluminescent display mimicking a jellyfish. A solitary, silvery giant squid materialised before them.

“I had some scepticism that this would work, but actually with the second deployment of my camera system we got the first images ever of giant squid, so that was really vindicating,” Widder says. She believes camera systems are the best way to observe deep sea creatures: “What we need to do is have long-term observatories in the deep sea that are stealthy and can observe using red light [...] so they’re truly unobtrusive. I think that’s the only way we’re going to learn about the nature of life out there.”

Steve O’Shea, who accompanied Widder on the 2012 mission, wants to get much closer to Architeuthis than that. “Three people have been in the submersible and seen it [using the remote Medusa] but what I wanted to do was find a juvenile giant squid and grow it up in captivity and display it for everybody to see,” he says. His love-hate relationship with giant squid began when he collected one from a fisherman, began to research them, and decided to set the record straight on these overdramatised creatures, which he sees as docile giants.

Despite his close association with Architeuthis, O’Shea finds other squid more interesting, and was the first to keep some far smaller deep-sea cephalopods alive for months in captivity. He discovered that purifying water is unhelpful as many juveniles absorb some food through the body wall and worked out how to maintain a current to keep the cephalopods from bumping into their tank walls and floors.

This led to a Discovery Channel-backed expedition to do the same with giant squid; he would capture squid larvae in shallow waters and keep them in captivity while they remained a manageable size.

Nobody knew how the larvae looked, so O’Shea extrapolated from the morphology of dead larvae to distinguish them from the nearly 100 other squid found off the coast of New Zealand. Beneath a new moon, he towed a soft mesh behind a boat and collected 19 juveniles, which he transferred to small cylinders in which they “danced around quite happily”.

Things began to go wrong when the squid were transferred to a large rectangular tank to be filmed without optical distortion; they tumbled belly-up to the bottom of the tank. O’Shea was perplexed. By the time he identified that on the juddering boat the water in the rectangular tank was turbulent whereas the water in the cylinder was calmer, it was far too late.

“We killed them with rectangular tanks, we killed them with polyethylene [which is toxic to them], we killed them again by putting them in the dark, and we killed them with starvation by giving them the wrong size of prey. Four different ways we killed these animals,” he recalls. In the end, he was left “with this snotty decomposing corpse of something I’d invested two years of my life in. They basically rotted, that was the end of them. After they’d all died on me, I disappeared for a couple of years and had massive depression.”

In the years since, O’Shea has agonised over his mistakes and what he could have done differently. Despite his own failure, he remains “absolutely convinced” giant squid can be kept in captivity.

According to Paul Clarkson, director of husbandry operations at Monterey Bay Aquarium, California, keeping an animal in captivity begins with understanding their habitat, lifecycle and behaviours, then replicating these in an aquarium.

Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first to successfully host a great white shark and kelp forest and – in a rare achievement – it also displayed a handful of slow-moving deep-sea cephalopods, including vampire squid. Developing the technologies necessary to collect these animals (using a robotic vessel deep in Monterey Canyon) and then meet their needs took decades of work and considerable expertise and funding.

“The squid as a group are particularly challenging and a lot of it has to do with their unique biology,” Clarkson explains. “Most [cephalopods] have very short lifespans.”

When it comes to the prospect of caring for a giant squid, Clarkson believes our ignorance regarding these creatures means aquarists would hardly know where to begin. And what we do know suggests that it would be unlike anything ever attempted.

“Understanding even the most basic things about their biology is extremely challenging,” says Clarkson. “Just getting your hands on one is unlikely, but when you think about an animal like that, which is essentially roaming the wide open ocean at extreme depth, trying to mimic that environment in an aquarium is...  I wouldn’t say impossible but it’s highly, highly challenging.”

Little is known about their physiology, life, growth, feeding habits and reproduction, and this knowledge vacuum would be likely to lead to unexpected, fatal complications, as O’Shea experienced. Widder found that even small deep-sea shrimp would “freak out” when put in a tank, would not eat, and had to be tethered to prevent them bumping into surfaces: “That experience informs me that trying to keep a giant squid alive is just an insane challenge,” she says.

An adult giant squid would need a colossal tank with an artificial current to prevent collisions with the walls. Near-freezing temperatures, low oxygen and oppressive pressure would need to be maintained. For the benefit of visitors, the tank could be illuminated with red light invisible to the squid. A robotic vessel would probably need to be employed full-time to capture fresh deep-sea food. All possible, but phenomenally expensive.

Clyde Roper, emeritus research zoologist at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, considers keeping a giant squid in captivity to be a moon shot of sorts: a staggeringly complex and expensive project.

“The first thing you’d need is a sugar daddy of enormous wealth and patience and willingness to experiment,” he laughs. “And golly would I love to meet such a person and work with them! That would be a lot of fun and the challenges would be immense, but for heaven’s sake, we put people on the Moon so why can’t we do something like this on our own planet?” He is confident that such a project would be possible. “Someday, somewhere, somebody is going to be able to come up with the kind of funding that’s going to be able to support this,” he says.

Unless a captive Architeuthis could be kept healthy, the result would be a dead tangle of tentacles in a box, and scientist and squid alike would be unquestionably better off with Widder’s system of deep-sea cameras. But if – and it is a colossal if – it could be done, it could finally shed some light on this most elusive of creatures.

“There are many species that cannot be or have not been observed in the wild, and it is difficult to infer much information about their behaviour and physiology from dead specimens,” says Kathrin Bolstad, a lecturer and squid expert at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. “For some aspects of their biology, captive observation and manipulation is the only way to gain information, but observations of this kind can be made on shallow-water species with far greater ease, and probably with far better results regarding the animals’ ongoing wellbeing.”

With captive specimens, marine biologists could finally observe growth, feeding, life cycles, and even reproductive behaviour, but despite the tantalising prospect of seeing giant squid bonking, it is unlikely that Architeuthis would be scientifically valuable enough to persuade funders to part with the vast sums necessary, particularly when deep sea cameras, trackers, submersibles and sea pens are available as cheaper, tried-and-tested methods for studying sea creatures.

The real payoff would be in the sheer feat of capturing and displaying the giant squid, inspiring a new generation of biologists and conservationists.

“There’d be nothing more exciting than to bring a child into an aquarium and have them look into a tank and see an animal as big as a school bus,” says Roper.

Though he is retired, O’Shea has been unable to escape the giant squid’s appropriately giant shadow. Scientists continue to piece together information from carcasses and rare photographs, but he holds onto hope that we will capture the creature.

“When I sat there and watched [Widder’s] video, everyone thought I would be upset it wasn’t me, but I was anything but. I thought finally I could just f**king walk away from this animal,” he says. “Now, just in the last few weeks, when someone got in touch and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this again’, well, I thought maybe I might like to get back there and do something.”

O’Shea is clear about his motives: “I wouldn’t be doing it for the scientific community. I’d just be doing it for the people who want to experience this for themselves and look at it and say ‘Wow! Isn’t this bloody amazing?’ And it is just bloody amazing. I don’t care what science comes out of it. I just want to look at it and appreciate it.”

Aquariums

The captive great white shark

The complications that would face aquarists preparing for a giant squid are similar to those encountered while designing better enclosures for research, entertainment and aquaculture (if somewhat larger in scale).

The display of great white sharks at Monterey Bay Aquarium was sensational; here was a truly iconic creature that had never been kept alive in captivity before. When the aquarium and its sister research institute began their project – which was mainly focused on wild white sharks – there were many unknowns about the sharks’ biology.

“People 20 years ago probably thought [keeping one captive] was never possible,” says the aquarium’s director of husbandry operations Paul Clarkson. Previous attempts had taken sharks caught in nets and thrown them into tanks to see what happened. Unsurprisingly, the sharks never lasted long.

The scientists and aquarists began by studying young white sharks trapped in nets in Southern California. They acclimatised their subjects in vast floating sea pens to ensure that they were feeding and in good shape before they could be transported to the aquarium in a specially designed tank, which allowed them to respire by swimming continuously. After months-long stints in the aquarium – which attracted two million visitors to the display – they were released back into the wild.

“It’s one of the most fascinating animals on the planet and people respond to it very viscerally,” says Clarkson. “I think the moment people were able to come face to face with an animal like that and have that really intimate encounter, it instantly erases a lot of assumptions... It’s an animal that can tell an absolutely fantastic story, which can lead to connects with people and drive inquiry and inspiration and conservation.”

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