Edith Widder: What Did It Take To Find The Giant Squid? Humans have been looking for the giant squid for decades. Oceanographer Edith Widder shares how innovative technology helped her capture the squid on video for the first time.
NPR logo

What Did It Take To Find The Giant Squid?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/373978671/375892022" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Did It Take To Find The Giant Squid?

What Did It Take To Find The Giant Squid?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/373978671/375892022" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - in search of ideas about looking for that elusive thing, and Edith Widder does most of her searching underwater.

EDITH WIDDER: Often in the dark, and always wondering, you know, how many animals are there out there just beyond the reach of my vision, or my lights, that I can't see, but they can see me?

RAZ: Edith is a marine biologist. She's made a career out of searching for rare, deep-sea creatures, and the most elusive - the giant squid.

WIDDER: Giant squid aren't aren't rare. Based on the number of beaks that have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales, it's thought that there are actually millions of them in the ocean, and yet, we haven't seen them.

RAZ: Millions of them.

WIDDER: Yep.

RAZ: Wow.

But up until a few years ago, no one had ever filmed one alive until Edith Widder found a way to do it. She tells the story on the TED stage.

(APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WIDDER: 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 all sailors saw that the only difference between a fairytale and a sea story is a fairytale begins upon a time and a sea story begins this ain't no [bleep].

(LAUGHTER)

WIDDER: 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.

RAZ: And that expedition, by the way, wasn't the first attempt to film the giant squid. There were dozens of attempts before, but the problem had always been the technology. And before Edith came along, most of the technology used in deep dives was noisy, with bright lights.

WIDDER: That are going to scare any sensible animal away.

RAZ: So for that giant squid hunt, Edith designed a special machine that fixed both of those problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WIDDER: 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 up, 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.

RAZ: Edith and the other two scientists headed to the waters just southeast of Japan with a documentary crew from the Discovery Channel. And they were hoping that this new approach would work.

Did you have any doubts that you would find it, that you would get this footage?

WIDDER: I had a lot of doubts that we'd get a giant squid. I thought I'd probably get some pretty interesting footage, but you just don't know what you're going to find when you're out in the ocean and it's a very, very big ocean. When we first got to the Ogasawara Islands off mainland Japan, my first dive was devastating to me because there was nothing in that water column, and I thought, oh, this is a disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBITION)

WIDDER: That looked like luminescence maybe. I saw a flash.

RAZ: This is audio from that exhibition.

WIDDER: And then on the second deployment of my camera system...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBITION)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, my god. Oh, OK, so this is...

WIDDER: Oh, my god.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh.

WIDDER: We got the first imagery of a giant squid coming in on camera and stroking the optical lure.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBITION)

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBITION)

WIDDER: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, man.

WIDDER: And everybody just went crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBITION)

WIDDER: It's coming in again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).

WIDDER: Oh, that is so cool.

WIDDER: It was just the most thrilling moment, I think, of most of our careers to actually see that footage. And what a gorgeous, gorgeous creature it turned out to be. It was bronze and silver and it would change back and forth and it had this absolutely fantastic eye that was looking right at us. It was just amazing.

RAZ: That was the first time anybody had seen this giant squid alive in the ocean.

WIDDER: Yeah, and it was actually kind of cool that there were television cameras rolling all the time, and so they caught that moment, you know, the thrilling moment why many of us become scientists. It's just that moment of discovery. I still get goosebumps every time I see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

WIDDER: 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 un-filmed until now? We've only explored about 5 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.

RAZ: Do you think that, like, the search or, like, the chase is the thing that, like, that keeps you at it? I mean, why do you explore?

WIDDER: Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.

RAZ: Is there something that you have a hunch about that might be down there that we don't know for sure that you're looking for?

WIDDER: No, the one thing I've learned (laughter) exploring the deep is you just can't even begin to imagine some of the bizarre creatures that are down there. I don't have any hunches at all except that we're going to be amazed.

RAZ: Marine biologist and deep-sea explorer Edith Widder. You should definitely see her full TED Talk and those incredible images of the giant squid at TED.com.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.