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).
Now that I’m fully independent, I hope more of you will consider financially supporting my Sustain What project.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s Nathan Robinson’s Global Exploration Summit talk:
Watch Widder’s trio of TED talks: