How Technology and Ingenuity Enabled a Giant Squid Quest

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My latest Sustain What conversation is a bit off the typical themes I’ve focused on since the early days of the pandemic. Our topic was innovations and lessons surrounding a giant-squid hunt. Watch and you’ll meet Nathan Robinson, a marine biologist and science communicator I got to know at a Global Exploration Summit we both spoke at last summer and his research collaborator and mentor Edie Widder, whose research focus has long been on bioluminescence.

Widder has built a lauded science and conservation career blending neuroscience, technology and keen observational skills. See her three TED talks and visit her Florida conservation organization Team Orca for more.

Robinson became something of a viral sensation some years back when he pulled a plastic straw from the nostril of an olive ridley sea turtle - in an excruciating effort for both reptile and humans. This still image is from Christine Figgener’s video, which has 85 million views on the Leatherback Trust channel on YouTube.

We talk about how they came together - Robinson from sea turtle science and Widder from studying things that glow in the deep - to stalk and film one of the ocean’s great reclusive leviathans - the giant squid (Architeuthis dux).

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Widder had played a core role in the international expedition that in 2012 for the first time filmed a living giant squid in its deep ocean lair. I wrote about that discovery in The Times. Since the 1990’s she’d been refining submersible lighting and camera systems, with names including “Eye in the Sea” and “Medusa,” designed to lure and record deep-sea life without scaring elusive creatures away. Byrd Pinkerton wrote a really nice Vox feature about this quest. Also read Widder’s description of her Medusa system and a glowing lure imitating a jellyfish.

Deep-sea jellyfish Atolla wyvilleias seen in white light (left), photographed by its own bioluminescence (middle) and the “e-jelly” designed to imitate its display (right). Image courtesy of Edie Widder Journey into Midnight: Light and Life Below the Twilight Zone

On June 19, 2019, during an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico spearheaded by Widder and Robinson, the Medusa camera system caught a giant squid stealthily emerging from the darkness to examine the glowing lure. Listen to my guests describe this mesmerizing moment.

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In our chat, Robinson also describes a recent effort to film an even larger cephalopod - the (yes!) colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni). He did so on one of the giant commercial fishing vessels frequenting Antarctic waters in search of the latest species targeted there, the toothfish. An injury to a crewman and other developments ended that colossal quest.

Drawing of a colossal squid, giant squid, and giant Pacific octopus (left to right), 2019. Illustration by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

An Antarctic krill competition

In the webcast we talk about how those remote southern seas are becoming the latest exploitation zone for vessels not only seeking finfish like toothfish but also krill - a harvest that ironically is pitting human fishers against slowly recovering populations of great whales that we nearly wiped out in decades past. We discussed a paper published early in 2023 describing how scientists and tourists on a Lindblad ship in Antarctic waters witnessed a disturbing competition, in essence, between an enormous gathering of fin whales and a fleet of commercial krill ships: “Commercial krill fishing within a foraging supergroup of fin whales in the Southern Ocean.” Here’s a snippet of video posted with the Stanford University news release on that research.

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I’m happy to see that Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has made this massive krill quest a new target. I’ll try to do a followup show on that issue.

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Here’s Nathan Robinson’s Global Exploration Summit talk:

Watch Widder’s trio of TED talks:

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Sustain What
Sustain What?
Sustain What? is a series of conversations, seeking solutions where complexity and consequence collide on the sustainability frontier. This program contains audio highlights from hundreds of video webcasts hosted by Andy Revkin, founder of the Columbia Climate School’s Initiative for Communication and Sustainability. Dale Willman is the associate director of the initiative. Revkin and Willman believe sustainability has no meaning on its own. The first step toward success is to ask: Sustain what? How? And for whom?