Note: Our first filming expedition for Denizens of the Deep was
to the Sea of Cortez to film Humboldt Squid. This was a difficult
exciting sequence to film in IMAX 3D. And the experience brought
back memories of our first encounter with the big squid back in
1990 when we spent almost two years (1989-1990) diving and filming
in the Sea of Cortez to complete a documentary entitled SHADOWS
IN A DESERT SEA. SHADOWS won numerous international awards and
was aired by ABC in Australia, by PBS' Nature series in the USA,
and by the BBC in the UK. Unfortunately, contract issues prevented
the film ever being released in home video.
Perhaps you were driving home one New Year's Eve and a guy in the opposite lane woke up just before crossing the double yellow line. You may have been that close - on the very edge of the abyss, and you never knew it.
Was I on the very edge or was I
completely safe? The question drifted through my mind as I turned
the 1300 watt movie lights aside and looked straight down
the monofilament line as it descended into darkness. The lights were so bright
that the glare actually hindered vision. But the power was necessary for filming
big animals underwater at night. I was hoping for big animals. And I hoped
I was being imaginative and not stupid. In the natural history film business,
the difference between being imaginative and being recklessly stupid can simply
be whether or not things go your way.
Aboard the Ambar III, my Dad was doubled over a big game fishing pole in cheerful agony. His back was failing and he occasionally passed the pole off to Bob Cranston when his muscles began to spasm. I'd brought my Mom and Dad along on the Sea of Cortez expedition to work as "production assistants." Simple nepotism. They know nothing about natural history film production.
I had no idea what Dad had on the other end of the line. But Mike McGettigan, owner of the Ambar III, had explained that if you caught something big, at night, in deep water, giant squid would sometimes follow it to the surface. Some Mexican fishermen had been seeing some big squid in this area. When we asked, "How big?" they spread their arms as wide as possible and said "grande!" One fisherman noticed our diving gear and asked if we intended to swim with the squid. When we said yes, he shook his head solemnly and said, "Not a good idea."
My eyes played tricks on me as I hung
suspended in oppressive darkness staring down the fishing line. Startling
shapes would begin to materialize and then
suddenly vanish. Imagination. I wondered about what the fishermen had said.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I looked up toward the surface and
could see the three skipjack tuna hanging over the side of the
Ambar III for the
squid to feast upon should they come up. I didn't know if the squid were
dangerous or not. I'd never seen a Humboldt squid. But I knew of other
things that hunted
in deep, dark waters that are attracted to bleeding tuna. I'd left my anti-shark
suit at home in San Diego. Not a good idea at all.
A large shape materialized in the dark water below. In an instant I knew this one was real. After almost two hours of fighting, Dad was about to reel in a fourteen-foot thresher shark. The lure had snagged the shark in the tail.
surfaced and tried to make myself heard over the whooping and hollering. "Let
it go. I'll try to get a shot of it as it swims away", I yelled. Then
I dropped back down to thirty feet and waited for the shark to be set free.
Alex Kerstitch jumped in with his still camera and grabbed a few shots
of the shark before he began working to free the lure. While he was working,
induced me to look down.
Flashing! There were objects far below and they were flashing as if someone down there had a rapid fire strobe going off about five times a second! As the shapes ascended I could see they were squid. The largest squid I'd ever seen!
A squid rushed past me and attacked the head of the thresher shark!
The squid was about five feet long - average size as this species of
squid reach thirteen feet and 300 pounds! As it grasped the face of
the shark, it began flashing from bright red to ivory white. It
After a moment it let go of the shark and descended like a falling
Another much larger squid rocketed past me. It grabbed a four-foot long needlefish that was swimming just below the surface. The squid was more than five feet long and probably close to seventy pounds. As it descended with the needlefish it began tearing it apart leaving a cloud of blood and scales in its wake.
Alex unhooked the shark and it dropped past me. I made a half-conscious effort of filming it and botched the shot. Alex then swam out toward a squid that was ripping apart one of the skipjacks we had set out as bait. Squid were rushing past me. Most were in the forty or fifty pound class. Some may have approached six feet and a hundred pounds or more.
Something grabbed me from behind and for a moment I could feel water rushing by as I was pulled back and down. I twisted around and saw the squid that had grabbed me rush away. I'd been pulled down about ten feet. I swam back up to thirty feet and neutralized my buoyancy. I didn't take the time to consider what might have happened if the squid hadn't let go, or if more than one squid had grabbed me, or if a really big one had...
seemed to be happening too fast. I still hadn't captured a single
good shot. Every time I turned toward the squid with the
they descended and vanished. I suddenly realized it was the lights.
like the lights! That was going to make filming them very difficult.
I wanted to film a squid attacking a free-swimming fish. But seeing how they avoided the glare of the movie lights, I decided to film one of the squid that was feeding on a skipjack bait. An enormous six-foot squid had engulfed one of the baits and was tearing it apart. I swam over and began shooting. The squid fed so aggressively that it refused to leave its prey even when the lights were inches away. Blood and scales flew from the cluster of arms as they ripped at the fish.
I shot a variety of close-ups and then decided to get better acquainted. I reached out to touch the animal and was startled as a large fleshy arm shot out and grabbed my hand. I jerked away and winced. Blood beaded on the back of my hand. This was not like handling an octopus! Alex had warned us that the big squid had sharp hooks that surround each powerful sucker disk. Not only does the sucker grab, but it also digs into the flesh. I was not curious enough to try it again.
Alex was behind me in the darkness. He had no movie lights to ward off the squid. A group ascended from the depths below frenzied by the smell of blood in the water. Three large squid grabbed Alex at the same time. Suddenly he felt himself rushing backward and down. A tentacle reached around his neck and ripped off his gold pendant and chain, tearing the skin on his neck. Another squid ripped his decompression computer off his pressure gauge. Tentacles tore his dive light from his wrist and his collection bag off his waist. Then as suddenly as they had grabbed him, the squid were gone.
I got back on board, Alex had already gone to bed. He hadn't mentioned
anything about the incident to the rest of the crew and
I hadn't seen
it happen. So we continued to dive most of the night. We thought
it strange that Alex
had quit so early, though. He loved to night dive.
The squid mugging hadn't really terrified Alex while it was happening. He was too busy to be afraid. But when he got back on board he began to wonder what if...? What if they held on just a little longer? In moments they might have dragged him down into abyssal depths. What if they ripped out his regulator? And his worst fear, what if that beak (much larger than the largest parrot's beak) had grabbed his neck and ripped out a two-pound hunk of flesh? As he thought about it, his knees became progressively weaker. He decided he needed some rest.
Bob Cranston, Mark Conlin, and I continued to dive most of the night without incident. I was frustrated because the squid consistently avoided my lights. About 3 am I gave up. Bob decided to make one last dive to shoot stills of a large squid that had snagged itself on the fishing lure that still dangled over the side of the boat.
Just as Bob pulled his mask down over his face, the line on the reel began spooling out as fast as if a two ton marlin had taken the bait! I dropped my tank on the deck and rushed over to put on the drag. The spooling didn't stop. I increased the drag as much as possible. Still the line rushed out. This was the fishing gear that had landed that 14-foot thresher!
was nothing I could do. The line continued to spool out. I looked
over to Bob who was ready to jump in, his regulator in
hand. He stared at the spooling reel for a long moment. "Going
asked. Bob continued to watch the spooling reel. "Better hurry.
What ever it is looks like it's going to get away," I said.
Bob still watched the spooling reel. "But then again, it's
seems hungry,” I said. “Maybe
it'll come back."
Bob set his camera down then dropped his tank on the deck. "Maybe not," he said.
"Good idea!" said Mark.
I reached into the cooler and pulled out three beers. Bob, Mark, and I took long pulls and watched the rest of the line spin off the reel.