Researchers have filmed a giant squid in U.S. waters for the first time ever, in a discovery that sheds more light on one of the most mysterious and little-understood creatures on the planet.
The footage shows a juvenile giant squid investigating an artificial lure in the “twilight zone” beneath the Gulf of Mexico, 759 metres below the surface. The 28-second video was released by a team of researchers funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on June 20.
“The old maps often showed serpents at the edge, with the warning ‘here be monsters,'” researchers Eddie Widder and Sonke Johnsen write in their blog on the NOAA website.
“However, the monsters are here, in our own backyard.”
The video is shot from a camera fixed to the artificial lure, which is designed to pulse with the low-level light of a jellyfish — one of the squid’s favourite meals.
The squid first appears as a sleek grey streak worming its way through the darkness. Then it strikes, opening out into a tangle of sucker-covered limbs so it can pull the lure in close for a bite. The squid briefly envelops the lure in its arms, then suddenly lets go upon discovering that it’s not a jellyfish. The creature flares its arms out, then tucks them in and shoots away into the darkness.
Researchers say the creature is likely about three to 3.7 metres long, or about twice as long as a human. However, it’s still small in terms of giant squid, which can grow up to 13 metres long, based on the current scientific understanding. The largest giant squid on record was 18 metres long, including its tentacles.
WATCH: New Zealand museum conducts autopsy on giant squid
Widder and Johnsen point out that the juvenile giant squid is living in an area surrounded by off-shore oil rigs, meaning those operations could be putting the elusive species at risk.
“The creature of our wildest imagination is not living in a pristine deep, but among the heaviest tools of our energy infrastructure,” they write.
Widder and Johnsen say thousands of robotic and human-controlled submarines have likely travelled through the area where they found the squid, approximately 161 kilometres southeast of New Orleans. Those submersibles probably scare away squid with their lights, which would explain why no one has seen one until now.
Giant squid have long been the stuff of legend, and are said to have inspired such monsters as the mythological Kraken and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
In this photo released by Tsunemi Kubodera, a researcher with Japan’s National Science Museum, a giant squid attacking a bait squid is being pulled up by his research team off the Ogasawara Islands, south of Tokyo, on Dec. 4, 2006. Japanese researchers were the first to film a live giant squid in the deep ocean in 2013. They used a small submersible rigged with lights too dim for human or squid eyes to see.
The squid’s exact range and migration patterns are unknown, but Japanese fishermen have captured a few of them over the years.
The creatures appear grey in infrared cameras, but bright pink when they’re hauled up from the ocean.
WATCH: Giant squid surfaces in Japanese harbour in December 2015
The NOAA team’s footage nearly didn’t survive the trip. Lightning struck the research vessel’s antenna while the scientists were examining the video, wreaking havoc on their electronics and cutting their access to the internet. The scientists went above deck to survey the damage when a waterspout — effective a tornado at sea — emerged several hundred metres from their boat.
Scientists have only come to understand the creatures more thoroughly in the last century. Dead specimens occasionally wash up on beaches or turn up in the bellies of sperm whales, which are thought to prey upon them at extreme depths. However, these specimens are usually decaying, and they don’t reveal much about the lives of giant squid.
Giant squid are thought to live some 600-1,000 metres below the surface of the ocean, where it’s extremely difficult to find them or monitor their behaviour.
Widder and Johnsen say they’re glad they can shed some light on the giant squid because they hope to show that it’s not a monster at all.
“What were once monsters to be feared are now curious and magnificent creatures that delight,” they wrote.