The giant squid used to be a creature so mysterious that the only evidence of its existence were the dead carcasses that washed ashore - until now. Michelle Miller reports on the Discovery Channel's expedition that caught the mythical beast alive on tape.
For centuries, the giant squid has been a deep-sea "monster" — a man-killer in Jules Verne's "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and the fierce "kraken" of Norse myth.
It's also been elusive: Dead specimens have been spotted floating on the ocean surface or washed ashore, and live ones captured only recently in still photographs.
Then, last summer, the first live giant squid was captured on video taken 2,000 feet below the surface of thePacific Ocean; it's scheduled to air on the Discovery Channel on Jan. 27.
Local marine scientist and deep-sea squid scholar Michael Vecchione has seen stills from that video, but not its entirety.
"Everybody who's involved in that thing has been sworn to secrecy," said Vecchione, an adjunct professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point. He's also affiliated with the National Museum of Natural History and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Vecchione wasn't part of the expedition that captured the rare footage, but he's made enough deep-sea excursions over the years to be considered one of the foremost experts on deep-sea squid in the world.
In 2003 he led the first expedition to explore the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone, diving about 14,000 feet to the deep-water habitats of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs from the Azores to Iceland. He's been back several times since.
The problem with spotting live giant squid isn't that they're so rare, Vecchione said, but that they live in the deep sea.
"And the deep sea is huge — it's by far the largest living space on the planet, but everything's spread out," he said. "You have to search a huge body of water before you actually encounter one of them."
The ocean researcher who captured the giant squid footage suspected she'd have better luck with the skittish creature if she developed what she called a quiet "stealthy camera," as she toldNPR recently.
"The way we go down with these noisy submersibles that have thrusters whirring and bright lights on them," said Edie Widder. "Any animal with any sense is going to get away from that."
Widder also rejected using dead bait, figuring it would attract scavengers rather than active predators like the giant squid. Instead, she developed an optical lure that mimicked bioluminescence, or the natural light produced by living organisms.
It worked, drawing out a "spectacular silver and gold" creature that Widder estimates could have been 30 feet long, or roughly the length of a three-story building, from the tip of its mantle to the tip of its tentacles. The largest giant squid ever measured was around 55 feet.
"The first few times that we saw it on camera, it was just like it was kind of doing a fan dance and just showing us little bits of itself," Widder said. "We'd see the arms kind of wave by the camera. And we did see one long shot of it. But the most spectacular shot was when it came in on the attack."
Squids are prolific cephalopods that grow fast and live only a few years, said Vecchione. Cephalopods — or what fishermen commonly call "inkfish" — predate the dinosaurs, stretching back nearly 500 million years to the Late Cambrian Period.
They evolved from a completely different background from humans and other vertebrates, said Vecchione.
"They're as close to an alien intelligence as we know about," he said. "Their brain is so different than ours."
But squids and octopods can exhibit "really amazing behaviors," he said. In aquariums, they've been known to squirt water at lights in the room to short them out. They can also be taught things — to discriminate between textures, colors or shapes, for instance.
Because their brains are so different, he said, it's difficult to gauge their intelligence.
"Some people say they're as smart as dogs," Vecchione said. "But I wouldn't want to make a statement like that."
Squids may be strange to humans, but they're no stranger to the Chesapeake Bay. Two species in particular call the estuary home: the small "brief squid," which grows to only 5 or 6 inches, and the "long-fin squid" which reaches about 18 inches.
The brief squid is fairly common in the mouth of the bay and sometimes ventures up into the York and Rappahannock rivers, Vecchione said, while the long-fin generally stays farther offshore, but does enter the bay. The long-fin is commercially fished for calamari.
Vecchione usually mounts at least one exploratory expedition a year, but says he has none scheduled for 2013 — "It's the whole federal funding budget situation."
"There are things I'd like to catch, things I'd like to see or find out more about," he said. "I can't tell you what's waiting to be discovered, but .. there's more new stuff to be found. Ninety-five percent of the living space on the planet is in the deep ocean. We've explored very little of that."
"Monster Squid: The Giant is Real" is set to air Jan. 27 on the Discovery Channel as the season finale of the series "Curiosity."