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Environment

Jellyfish camera captures giant squid

The elusive giant squid has finally been captured on film, lurking in deep water off the coast of Japan. Biologist Edie Widder designed a camera that imitated a bioluminscent jellyfish to draw the legendary creature.

Earlier this week, Edie Widder and her colleagues released the first-ever moving images of a giant squid. The footage was shot near Japan's Ogasawara Islands.

DW: Dr. Widder, could you tell us what we're seeing in this film?

Edie Widder: You're seeing black and white images of a giant squid attacking the camera system. A squid has eight arms and two tentacles, and this one in the color images - the most spectacular - it doesn't appear to have tentacles. That's probably because this is in a fishing zone, and they get their tentacles hooked on the fishing gear that the fisherman use and they get ripped off.

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The images of silvery tentacles coiling and bending under water are sensational, especially considering how many filmmakers and biologists have tried and failed to capture them on film. Your team used a special camera that you designed to coax the squid on screen.

I developed my camera system, called the Medusa, jointly with a colleague down in Australia as a method of exploring the ocean unobtrusively. The critical thing was that we didn't use white light, which I believe has been scaring the animals away. We used far-red light, which is as close to infrared as we can get under water. Infrared light is absorbed so quickly you can't use it. I developed an optical lure that imitates certain types of bioluminescent displays that I think might be attractive to large predators. The other way to do it is just use dead bait, but I think dead bate attracts scavengers, and we wanted to attract active predators.

So you were luring the squid using the light their prey might give off?

It's a little more complicated than that. I was using a light that imitates a certain jellyfish. Squid don't eat jellyfish, but they eat the things that eat the jellyfish. Jellyfish is put on a lightshow to attract a larger predator. It's caught in the clutches of something like a fish and has no hope for escape unless its lightshow attracts something bigger that will attack their attacker. This affords them an opportunity for escape.

Tell me about the day you put the camera in the water and finally attracted the squid.

The amazing thing was that we got the first recordings of a giant squid on the second deployment of our camera system. We actually made six separate recordings of architeuthis. I think this is testament to the fact we've been exploring the oceans wrong. There could be all kinds of things down there yet to discover, but the way we've been exploring is scaring them away.

What exactly is architeuthis?

Architeuthis is the taxonomic, or Latin, name for the giant squid. Archi- means chief and teuthis means squid - so it's the chief squid.

What will these images teach us about the giant squid and its behavior?

Squid experts have been debating for some time about whether the giant squid is a passive predator that just floats around in the water and waits to bump into something. I was never one to imagine it to be passive. This shows it to be a very active predator. I love that black and white image that was done with my camera system where it actually attacks the camera.

A giant squid is seen in this still image taken from video

The creature's Latin name means "chief squid"

The other thing was just how amazing it looked. It was so different than any of us expected. Dead versions appeared red or brown. But this was silver and gold and just breathtakingly beautiful. The squid had this enormous intelligent eye looking back at us.

For centuries, no one could prove that the giant squid existed. They were a legend: creatures with monstrous tentacles that would wrap around ships and haul the sailors to their doom. In Japanese science fiction films, the evil squid would rise out of the ocean and attack the cities. What made you want to search for the giant squid?

My fascination has always been with the animals in the ocean that make light. And I'm just very interested in how animals in the deep ocean use light to survive. I got hooked on being a marine biologist when I was 11 years old, and I pretty much didn't waiver from that.

It's very thrilling to see something you have known has existed for so long. The giant squid has been known to be real since the mid-1800s because of the dead specimens that have been collected. But the intriguing thing about the giant squid is they happen to float when they die. So my question is what about the stuff that doesn't float?

Edie Widder is a biologist, deep sea explorer and senior scientist at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA). Her film, "Monster Squid: The Giant is Real" will be released on January 27 in the United States.

Interview: Saroja Coelho / cg

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