The Kraken, a beast so terrifying it was said to devour men and ships and whales, and so enormous it could be mistaken for an island. In assessing the merits of such tales, it’s probably wise to keep in mind that old sailor’s saw that the only difference between a fairytale and a sea story is a fairytale begins, “Once upon a time,” and a sea story begins, “This ain’t no shit.” (Laughter)
Every fish that gets away grows with every telling of the tale. Nevertheless, there are giants in the ocean, and we now have video proof, as those of you that saw the Discovery Channel documentary are no doubt aware.
I was one of the three scientists on this expedition that took place last summer off Japan.I’m the short one. The other two are Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera and Dr. Steve O’Shea.
I owe my participation in this now-historic event to TED. In 2010, there was a TED event called Mission Blue held aboard the Lindblad Explorer in the Galapagos as part of the fulfillment of Sylvia Earle’s TED wish. I spoke about a new way of exploring the ocean, one that focuses on attracting animals instead of scaring them away. Mike deGruy was also invited, and he spoke with great passion about his love of the ocean, and he also talked to me about applying my approach to something he’s been involved with for a very long time,which is the hunt for the giant squid. It was Mike that got me invited to the squid summit, a gathering of squid experts at the Discovery Channel that summer during Shark Week. (Laughter)
I gave a talk on unobtrusive viewing and optical luring of deep sea squid in which I emphasized the importance of using quiet, unobtrusive platforms for exploration. This came out of hundreds of dives I have made, farting around in the dark using these platforms, and my impression that I saw more animals working from the submersible than I did with either of the remote-operated vehicles. But that could just be because the submersible has a wider field of view. But I also felt like I saw more animals working with the Tiburon than the Ventana, two vehicles with the same field of view but different propulsion systems.
So my suspicion was that it might have something to do with the amount of noise they make. So I set up a hydrophone on the bottom of the ocean, and I had each of these fly by at the same speed and distance and recorded the sound they made. The Johnson Sea-Link — (whirring noise) — which you can probably just barely hear here, uses electric thrusters — very, very quiet. The Tiburon also uses electric powered thrusters. It’s also pretty quiet, but a bit noisier. (Louder whirring noise) But most deep-diving ROVs these days use hydraulicsand they sound like the Ventana. (Loud beeping noise) I think that’s got to be scaring a lot of animals away.
So for the deep sea squid hunt, I proposed using an optical lure attached to a camera platform with no thrusters, no motors, just a battery-powered camera, and the only illumination coming from red light that’s invisible to most deep-sea animals that are adapted to see primarily blue. That’s visible to our eye, but it’s the equivalent of infrared in the deep sea. So this camera platform, which we called the Medusa, could just be thrown off the back of the ship, attached to a float at the surface with over 2,000 feet of line, it would just float around passively carried by the currents, and the only light visible to the animals in the deep would be the blue light of the optical lure, which we called the electronic jellyfish, or e-jelly, because it was designed to imitate the bioluminescent display of the common deep sea jellyfish Atolla.
Now, this pinwheel of light that the Atolla produces is known as a bioluminescent burglar alarm and is a form of defense. The reason that the electronic jellyfish worked as a lure is not because giant squid eat jellyfish, but it’s because this jellyfish only resorts to producing this light when it’s being chewed on by a predator and its only hope for escape may be to attract the attention of a larger predator that will attack its attacker and thereby afford it an opportunity for escape. It’s a scream for help, a last-ditch attempt for escape, and a common form of defense in the deep sea.
The approach worked. Whereas all previous expeditions had failed to garner a single video glimpse of the giant, we managed six, and the first triggered wild excitement.
Edith Widder (on video): Oh my God. Oh my God! Are you kidding me? Other scientists: Oh ho ho! That’s just hanging there.
EW: It was like it was teasing us, doing a kind of fan dance — now you see me, now you don’t — and we had four such teasing appearances, and then on the fifth, it came in and totally wowed us.
(Music) Narrator: (Speaking in Japanese)
Scientists: Ooh. Bang! Oh my God! Whoa!
EW: The full monty.
What really wowed me about that was the way it came in up over the e-jelly and then attacked the enormous thing next to it, which I think it mistook for the predator on the e-jelly.
But even more incredible was the footage shot from the Triton submersible. What was not mentioned in the Discovery documentary was that the bait squid that Dr. Kubodera used, a one-meter long diamondback squid had a light attached to it, a squid jig of the type that longline fishermen use, and I think it was this light that brought the giant in.
Now, what you’re seeing is the intensified camera’s view under red light, and that’s all Dr. Kubodera could see when the giant comes in here. And then he got so excited, he turned on his flashlight because he wanted to see better, and the giant didn’t run away, so he risked turning on the white lights on the submersible, bringing a creature of legend from the misty history into high-resolution video. It was absolutely breathtaking, and had this animal had its feeding tentacles intact and fully extended, it would have been as tall as a two-story house.
How could something that big live in our ocean and yet remain unfilmed until now? We’ve only explored about five percent of our ocean. There are great discoveries yet to be made down there, fantastic creatures representing millions of years of evolution and possibly bioactive compounds that could benefit us in ways that we can’t even yet imagine. Yet we have spent only a tiny fraction of the money on ocean exploration that we’ve spent on space exploration. We need a NASA-like organization for ocean exploration, because we need to be exploring and protecting our life support systems here on Earth.
We need — thank you. (Applause)
Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let’s all go exploring, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t scare the animals away, or, as Mike deGruy once said, “If you want to get away from it all and see something you’ve never seen,or have an excellent chance of seeing something that no one’s ever seen, get in a sub.” He should have been with us for this adventure. We miss him. (Applause)