Real Sea Monsters
The vicious giant Dosidicus gigas, the Humboldt squid, seems to be finding a new home right off our shores.
Thursday, March 10, 2005
There is an alien intelligence residing deep within the Monterey Bay, a bizarre life form that appears to be proliferating by the thousands in cold black waters far below the surface. It resides within creatures that have three hearts, primate-like stereoscopic eyes, blue blood and brains large enough to suggest they are among the smartest creatures on earth. They are giant raptorial predators with a taste for flesh. Growing up to seven feet long and occasionally bigger—possibly much bigger—these carnivores seize their prey with two lightning-fast, hook-laden tentacle clubs, draw it into a squirming nest of eight arms and proceed to tear chunks of flesh from its body with a disproportionately large, razor-sharp, parrot-like beak.
They are notorious cannibals. They have been called the most opportunistic killers in the sea. They have been observed employing cooperative hunting techniques, yet they will not hesitate to gorge upon one another should they sense the slightest possible opening. Although they primarily hunt fish, they have been rumored to kill and eat small mammals, even dogs. They will attack anything over which they sense an advantage, including humans. Divers recount breathtaking beatings, painful lacerations from their sharp hooks and even incidences where, working in teams, these animals have dragged divers into deeper water to subdue them.
They are Dosidicus gigas or Humboldt Squid, the fiercest of
all the cephalopods, and for reasons unknown to science, they
are appearing in huge numbers along the West Coast, from the
Gulf of Mexico to Southeast Alaska, including a sizable
population right here in the Monterey Bay.
• • •
Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), using the Ventana, an unmanned deep-water submarine, first captured fleeting, ghostly glances of Humboldt squid hunting at great depths in 1998. Researchers believe that those squid were members of an exploration party sent north into California’s El Niño-warmed waters by a massive population of Dosidicus residing in the Gulf of Mexico. They believe those squid discovered our deep-water bay and liked what they found.
Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the advance party of Humboldt Squid all but vanished from our waters once again—only to reappear at redoubled strengths a few years later.
“They kind of dropped off from 1998 to 2001 then reappeared,” Leo Zeidberg of MBARI says. “Now they’ve really picked up again, to a level we didn’t even see in 1998.”
It wasn’t until the huge cephalopods began washing up on shores in huge numbers from La Jolla to British Columbia and even Alaska that scientists began to understand just how densely Dosidicus had populated the West Coast. Last month 1,500 Humboldt squid washed up on Newport Beach, creating a national stir.
“We’re not certain why they’re washing up,” says Dr. William Gilly of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove. Gilly initially suspected that a toxin produced by several species of microscopic algae was poisoning the animals, but further analysis has been inconclusive. He still suspects that some type of toxin, coupled with the environmental stress of living in warmer water, may be the culprit.
However, these “mass suicides” are secondary to his research. “I’m more interested in what they’re doing normally when they’re healthy, not when they’re dying,” says Gilly, who has been studying Humboldt squid for two decades.
Gilly’s first Mexican expedition to study Humboldt squid in 1986 failed to turn up a single specimen. Disappointed, he turned his sights to other research projects. Then in 1995, Gilly and his son were forced to take shelter from a hurricane in San Lucas Cove near Santa Rosalía, halfway up the Baja Peninsula on the Sea of Cortez, during a fishing and camping trip. That night, attracted by lights on the beach, Gilly made his way down to the water and found local fishermen unloading huge quantities of Humboldt squid from the open skiffs they call pangas.
Shocked by the sheer numbers the fishermen were pulling up, Gilly began studying the Humboldt squid within the context of the massive Mexican squid industry, built on the third largest fishery in the country, which has been quietly intensifying over the last decade. Today, according to Gilly, Mexican fishermen catch “more than 100,000 tons of squid on a good year. All on hand lines, most from pangas.” Considering that the local population of 1,000 sperm whales eats another 200,000 pounds a year, some are worried there is too much pressure on the population. But Gilly believes there is an astounding number of Humboldt squid in the ocean. He estimates there are 10 million living in one particularly dense 25-mile area off the coast of Santa Rosalia alone.
Because the squid are believed to live at depths of 660 to 2,300 feet, its hard to know for sure just how many there really are. For that matter, it’s hard to develop much of profile at all when an animal’s natural habitat can only be observed by the stunted light of an unmanned submarine.
In an effort to discover more about their movements in the Pacific Ocean, Gilly tagged a half-dozen Humboldt squid in the Gulf of Mexico and two in Monterey with special pop-up satellite tags as part of the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics (TOPP) program in 2004. Thanks to data from these tags, Gilly has learned that these animals spend a great deal of time in the ocean’s “oxygen minimum” layer, a shadowy substratum of the sea where little life exists.
“The fact that they go down into very low-oxygen water is surprising,” Gilly says. “MBARI sees them down in these anoxic waters, the squid wake up from a stupor to catch fish in the ROV’s light. They appear to be functioning normally, but you can never be sure because of the bright lights of the ROV.”
Because of this apparently amazing feat of respiration, Zeidberg calls Humboldt squid “the athletes of the cephalopod world.”
“We don’t know where they’re getting their oxygen, but there’s no difference in their metabolic activity,” he says. “They act like there’s eight mililiters of oxygen in the water when there’s less than one.”
Gilly has also tagged roughly 2,000 Humboldt squid with conventional plastic tags, and learned something about their migrations and growth rates in the Gulf of California.
“We know they are on the fishing grounds in Santa Rosalia in summer and Guaymas [a 10-hour ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez] in winter,” Gilly says. “We know they move, we just don’t know how they get there.”
Although he may not know how they get from one place to another, Gilly thinks he’s discovered the Humboldt squid’s spawning grounds. This is especially significant as the eggs of Dosidicus gigas have never been found, and it’s impossible to tell the hatchlings from many other squid species.
• • •
Gilly has also spent time in the water with Humboldt squid and dismisses accounts that claim the animals are dangerous to humans.
“A lot of people want to make these things out to be mean and vicious and dangerous,” Gilly says. “To the best of my knowledge there’s no documentation that they’ve attacked anyone. Yes, there are divers who have let them grab on to them and drag them around. And yes, if there was a bad-ass squid who wanted to do damage, it could. When I snorkeled with them, one did come right up to me like it was going to eat a fish, but then it just touched me on the hand with its tentacle.
“Of course there are other guys I’ve worked with who want to play up the sensationalism aspects and wear chain mail in the water,” Gilly says. “Like Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, ‘Everyone needs their sea monster in their personal ocean.’ Sensationalism sells video.”
Scott Cassell, a scuba diving videographer who has in fact designed special armor to protect himself while diving with Humboldt squid, takes issue with Gilly’s characterization.
“Gilly is trying to make them out to be cute little ET’s,” says Cassell, an underwater filmmaker and cameraman who has done 205 dives with Humboldt squid, and just finished a stint as chief researcher for a Discovery Channel documentary called Killer Squid.
“They are, in my opinion, the most opportunistic animals in the world, feeding on any type of fish they come in contact with and occasionally mammals,” Cassell says. “I’ve interviewed many people who have been attacked by these squids. There are also stories of disappearances, always unexplained, around the Humboldt squid. Always fishermen.
“I’ve actually seen a Humboldt squid attack a thresher shark twice its size, bite through the very tough skin of the shark and pull out a fist-size chunk of flesh. The Humboldt squid don’t have to kill, they latch on and eat as much as they can without injury to themselves. Because of this they will test and attack most everything they encounter.”
Cassell also maintains that Humboldt squid live longer and grow larger than Gilly’s research indicates.
“I have evidence they live up to 450 days and grow in excess of eight, some say 10, probably up to 14 feet. They do this massive growth rate in a very short amount of time.”
“That’s one that Scott and I can actually agree on,” Gilly says in response. “Most people will tell you that they only live a year, but we recently published a paper based in part on our most recent tagging studies which have indicated they can probably live up to two years.
“As for the biggest documented squid in South America—length I don’t know, that’s suspect with stretching out the tentacles and everything, but I have read that they got to 250 centimeters [8.2 feet] and 50 kilograms [110 lbs] and I think that’s credible.”
In order to get “a pure example” of their predatory behavior, Cassell dives alone with these squid. Last September, at about 200 feet below the surface, Cassell was attacked by what Gilly would refer to as a “bad-ass” squid—an eight-foot, 300-pound monster Cassell dubbed “Scar.” It was an unforgettable experience he caught on film for an upcoming documentary titled Red Intelligence. He believes the squid are highly intelligent and at times very gentle: “His first attack gave me a giant bruise on my ribs, but once he realized I was not edible, we spent the next 12 minutes hovering before each other,” Cassell says. “He petted me and I reached out and rubbed his belly.”
But a litany of bad experiences has inspired him to develop defenses to counter an attack, which include the anti-squid armor suits; armor plating for the vulnerable parts of his breathing apparatus; an anti-squid cage; and back-to-back diving techniques.
“Diving with these squid is like diving in a barroom brawl,” Cassell says. “I’ve had my eardrum ruptured by getting dragged down from 45 feet to 75 feet; I’ve had my right arm dislocated by a squid grabbing my camera and yanking it; I’ve had 25 stitches from a particularly bad bite on my leg; and I’ve been smashed on the face more times than I can remember because they always seem to go for the camera when I’m looking through it.”
The most notorious Humboldt squid story involves Alex Kirstich, a National Geographic videographer working at night in the Sea of Cortez. Kirstich was shooting a school of five-foot Humboldt squid 30 feet below the surface when he was “mugged” by three squid and gang-dragged down to a depth of 70 feet.
“They took his camera, his necklace, his dive computer and gave him some nice bites around the back of his neck,” Cassell says.
Although Kirstich survived the attack, it was an encounter that stayed with him until his recent death from cancer, according to Cassell. “Every time he told that story you could see the fear.”
Yet despite stories like this, Cassell insists that Humboldt squid are “not crazed killers.”
“They are the most alien intelligence in the sea and
probably the world. They’re just so much different from us.
I’ve never seen the same thing twice. It’s a different
behavior with every dive.”
• • •
Last month Cassell dove with three- to four-foot squid off Point Loma, near San Diego, and observed squid “stalking schools of fish, coordinating attacks on schools of fish, communicating with each other,” he says. “It was amazing.”
The Humboldt squid is capable of changing colors several times a second, from the deep maroon that prompted Mexican fisherman to dub them los diablos rojos, or “red devils,” to an opalescent white. They have been observed pulsating like jittery strobe at each other, principally while hunting or feeding, a behavior that some researchers theorize could be some form of communication.
While other squid researchers share Gilly and Cassell’s sense of awe and amazement, they tend to fall between the two in terms of gauging the Humboldt squid’s inherent danger.
“I think I’m somewhere between what the armor guy feels and what Gilly feels,” Zeidberg says. “I think the primary difference is, when people go down and hang heads of squid off the side of the boat, then jig other squids and start a feeding frenzy, you’re going to have problems. These are cannibalistic animals. Like sharks, they go bonkers with blood and chum in the water.”
Chumming with squid heads is common among fishermen on both sides of the border and some researchers have adopted the fishermen’s method of luring schools of Humboldt squid up into the range of scuba equipment by catching one of their own on a jig. Rendered vulnerable by the hook in its mouth, the victim is frequently beset by his companions. It is not uncommon for fishermen to pull Humboldt squid half-eaten by other Humboldt squid out of the ocean.
Zeidberg also confirms that Humboldt squid are highly opportunistic and clever. “They like to sneak up on you. If you look at one, he’ll back up and then the buddy comes up behind you. And these are strong animals.”
Jim Knowlton, a photographer who has captured numerous stunning images of Humboldt squid (including the shot on the front page of this newspaper) also advises caution.
“You know, no one knows enough about them,” Knowlton says. “You can’t predict what their responses would be under any given situation. In my encounters, I put as many of the advantages as possible on my side so I’m comfortable being near them.”
One thing is for sure, there is a huge population swarming 20-50 miles off the California coast right now and a good deal of them in Monterey Bay as well.
Local fishing charters have been hauling in huge amounts of squid at the edge of the submarine canyon in Monterey Bay. “Each trip varies, but we’ve gotten as many as 115 big ones on a trip for 12 guys,” says Todd Arcoleo of Chris’ Fishing Trips in Monterey.
Although the Humboldt squid presence is a mystery, researchers tend to agree that their recent exploration and settlement patterns are probably linked to climate change. Gilly specifically points to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), an El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability that lasts upwards of 25-30 years. Gilly believes the Pacific Ocean is entering a period of colder water, which means the Humboldt squid could be in our waters for as many as 20 more years.
If Gilly’s hypothesis is correct, these intelligent, mysterious, eerie creatures may be among us in large numbers for years to come. It’s a prospect welcomed by cephalopod researchers and fishermen alike.