In Calif., A Rare Look At Humboldt Squid

It's not often you get to see a giant sea creature up close and personal. But the arrival of swarms of giant Humboldt squid in southern California has given scuba divers a rare treat. Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, offers her insight.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, one summer movie formula that's almost certain to get big box-office numbers would be that old reliable plot, humans versus sea monsters. It worked for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," it worked for "Moby Dick," it even worked for Steven Spielberg in "Jaws."

(Soundbite of "Jaws" theme music)

SIEGEL: But the most compelling tales are often those drawn straight from reality. And last week, swarms of giant Humboldt squid descended on the shallow waters off San Diego. The carnivorous calamari weigh up to 100 pounds and they're known for their barbed suckers and sword-like beaks. This sounds like a blockbuster already. They have reportedly chased more than a few scuba divers from the water.

And here to explain this squid invasion is Nigella Hillgarth, who is executive director of the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. What do these creatures look like?

Dr. NIGELLA HILLGARTH (Executive Director, Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography): Well, I think they're beautiful, of course. They are very large squid. In fact, the adults are up to about, almost seven feet long. The ones that are washing up are about three or four feet long. They are not - most of them are not adult. And they're long and sleek with sort of diamond-shaped fins at the rear, and then, of course, they have eight arms and two big tentacles.

SIEGEL: Why are they so close to shore? What's happening?

Dr. HILLGARTH: Well, it's interesting. Now we know that we have a year-round permanent population of these giant squid living in very deep water off the coast of California. And so, they probably came in near shore chasing some prey, and they came closer to the surface and to the shore than they normally do.

SIEGEL: What about them harassing scuba divers? Is that, first of all, is it typical squid behavior and are they a serious danger?

Dr. HILLGARTH: Well, they're very curious animals. So, anything that they're not sure about or that's rather new to them, they're going to come and investigate. So, anyone night diving may encounter these animals at the moment while they're off our shores. A friend of mine said that she was night diving and that she got bumped from behind and turned around and there was one of these squids looking at her, and that it was then gently feeling parts of her equipment, trying to pull her mask, for example, and then was quickly joined by other ones who were interested.

So, I think that's why it makes divers nervous. It makes divers curious but nervous because these animals are very, very strong, and they could pull you down into much deeper water.

SIEGEL: How does a population of creatures like this, how does its habitat change?

Dr. HILLGARTH: Probably in the last 20 years or so, we - there's been a unique 16-year time series of deep video surveys in Monterrey Bay, and that's revealing that they have established themselves there. So, what's happened is that as we've got warmer water coming further north, this has really brought the squid with it.

So, it's really - it's climatic changes in the ocean that are causing these shifts in populations. And that is - appears to be coupled with, also, the disappearance of some of the very large fish predators that actually eat squid.

SIEGEL: Well, it sounds like an interesting time and place to be doing what you're doing.

Ms. HILLGARTH: Well, it's fascinating. And it's, you know, last Saturday, when I actually saw one of these creatures live that had got washed up and wedged in the rocks and was still alive, it was the first time I'd seen a live Humboldt squid, and it was amazing. It really made me realize how much I love my job and I love seeing these animals.

SIEGEL: Dr. Hillgarth, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. HILLGARTH: Thank you very much. It's been a delight.

SIEGEL: That is Nigella Hillgarth, who's executive director of the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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