Humboldt squid: Soft, gentle kittens of the briny deep?

If you’ve been diligently following your giant-squid news, you probably heard two weeks ago about the invasion of Humboldt squid in the ever-warming waters off California. Now, Humboldt squid have a lethal reputation. South American anglers have long spoken in dread whispers of the ferocity of the six-foot-long Dosidicus gigas, spinning Cthulhuian tales of fisherman dragged screaming into the briny deep by forearm-thick tentacles, whereupon they are messily devoured by the Diablo Rojo’s fleshreaping beak.

This centuries-old mythos was given new life in the 90s, when Steve Cassell, a diver and adventurer, began swimming with the Humboldt Squid and penning hair-raising tales of how they viciously attacked him. It’s pretty nutty stuff: Among other things, Cassell reports being hit with “a tentacular strike that felt like being hit with a baseball bat square in the ribs”, and a profile of Cassell in Outside magazine describes the squid “bull-rushing him with a flare of arms and tentacles followed by the scrape of sucker teeth on his armor.” Yes, armor: The dude has custom-built some sort of padded gladiatorial outfit to survive the Humboldt’s fury.

Ah, but now another scientist claims this is all false, malicious libel. Brad Seibel, a biologist at the University of Rhode Island, has been studying the Humboldt squid for years now, because he’s trying to figure out how they survive at 300-meter deep levels, where oxygen is scarce. Seibel says the squid are actually totally “timid” and “nonthreatening”; after getting annoyed at the recent hooplah about the red devils, Seibelput out a press release describing his own dives:

Scuba diving at night in the surface waters of the Gulf of California in 2007, Seibel scanned the depths with his flashlight and saw the shadows of Humboldt squid far in the distance. After he got up his nerve, he turned off the light. When he turned it back on again 30 seconds later, he was surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of the squid, many just five or six feet away from him. Most were in the 3-4 foot size range, while larger ones were sometimes visible in deeper waters. But the light appeared to frighten them, and they immediately dashed off to the periphery. [snip]

Seibel was surprised by the large number of squid he encountered, which made it easy to imagine how they could be potentially dangerous to anything swimming with them. Their large numbers also made Seibel somewhat pleased that they appeared frightened of his dive light. Yet he said the animals were also curious about other lights, like reflections off his metal equipment or a glow-in-the-dark tool that one squid briefly attacked.

“Based on the stories I had heard, I was expecting them to be very aggressive, so I was surprised at how timid they were. As soon as we turned on the lights, they were gone,” he said. “I didn’t get the sense that they saw the entire diver as a food item, but they were definitely going after pieces of our equipment.”

Heh. Personally, I’m not sure I’d dive with cephalopods that were trying to eat my metal equipment, but it’s pretty cool hearing an alternative view on Humboldt squid.

(The picture above is from the Outside piece, which is quite awesome and worth reading.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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