Since the dawn of underwater photography, researchers have been trying to capture the giant squid (Architeuthis) on film, but to no avail. Noisy, brightly lit submersibles kept the enormous creatures at bay. But now, smarter technology has enabled scientists — and the rest of the world — to finally glimpse giant squids in their natural habitats.
Edith Widder, an oceanographer specializing in bioluminescence, is the tech-savvy scientist who made this year’s Discovery Channel expedition to film the giant squid a success.
Widder’s research focuses on developing unobtrusive ways to observe underwater animals in their natural environments. She recently spoke at the TED 2013 Conference in Long Beach, Calif., where she explained how she and her fellow researchers were able to finally capture the elusive giant squid on film.
Widder explained that the expedition used a motor-less camera platform that, when dropped off the back of the boat, passively floated with the currents on over 2,000 feet of line. The platform held a battery-operated camera that used red light — which is invisible to deep sea creatures - to illuminate underwater shots.
To draw the giant squid into range of the camera, scientists also developed an electronic optical lure, dubbed the “e-jelly”, which flashed a blue light in imitation of the deep sea atolla jellyfish’s bioluminescent display.
Atolla jellyfish, also known as Medusa jellyfish, use their lights as a defense against predators. Upon seeing the flashing lights of the e-jelly, the giant squid moved in, not to eat the Medusa jellyfish, but to make a meal of whatever was attacking it. Footage shows the squid approaching the e-jelly and curiously poking its tentacles around the camera platform.
The researchers were able to capture more images of the deep sea giant from a quiet submersible. To get the squid close enough to film, they attached a blue light — what’s known as a squid jig to longline fishermen - to a piece if bait and floated the bait on a loose line.
When the giant found the bait, Tsunemi Kubodera, a scientist at Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, flooded the hungry giant squid with lights from the submersible, allowing this elusive creature to be filmed in high definition.
“If this animal had its feeding tentacles intact and fully extended, it would have been as tall as a two story house,” Widder said. “How could something that big live in our ocean and yet remain un-filmed until now? “
Widder believes that deep sea scientists need a NASA-like organization to lead exploration of the earth’s oceans and promote the protection of aquatic life systems.
“Exploration is the engine that drives innovation,” Widder said. “Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring.”
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Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.