Giant squid caught in Gulf of Mexico

NEW ORLEANS, LA The last time scientists got a giant squid from the gulf to study was in 1954. The animal was floating, dead on the water.

This one -- an immature animal about 19 1/2 feet long and 103 pounds -- was alive when it was netted July 30 during a practice trawl for a study planned in January of the endangered sperm whales in the northern Gulf of Mexico and their food supply.

"We don't study the deep water much. When we do, we find pretty spectacular things. This is a good example of that," said Michael Vecchione, a squid expert at the Smithsonian Institution.

It's "almost certainly" Architeuthis dux, found in the western North Atlantic. The length from the tip of its mantle to the end of its two long tentacles (squid also have eight shorter arms) indicates that it's probably a female, since they grow much bigger than males, and probably was immature, Vecchione said.

But, since it was dead by the time it was hauled onto the deck and was frozen on shipboard -- it was far too big for any specimen bottle -- that can't be confirmed until it's thawed and injected with formaldehyde by scientists in hazmat suits.

Most giant squid -- perhaps an average of one or two a year -- are pulled up off Spain and New Zealand, which have deep-water fisheries, said Vecchione, director for NOAA's Fisheries Service's National Systemics Laboratory. They're usually around the continental slope where relatively shallow water drops off into the deep sea.

Vecchione said this squid's main scientific significance is confirmation that sperm whales found in the northern gulf, often surprisingly near the heavily traveled shipping lanes at the mouth of the Mississippi River, have a local source of their main food.

Bits of giant squid already had been found in the stomachs of sperm whales and other predators from the Gulf of Mexico and nearby waters.

"Finding this specimen in the Gulf of Mexico in the area they were studying confirms the idea they're hanging around there because there's good food," Vecchione said.

In addition, he said, its DNA can be compared to that of other giant squid around the world. Not much is known about what they eat, "so if we get a chance to open up the stomach and see what's in it, that can add a lot to that," Vecchione said.

The trawls, about 130 miles off the Louisiana coast, were a side project for a 60-day marine mammal survey by scientists with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said Anthony Martinez, a marine mammal scientist for NOAA's Fisheries Service and chief scientist on the research cruise.

Sixteen previous trawls had caught mostly small creatures such as 12- to 16-inch-long squid and bioluminescent lanternfish a couple of inches long.

"We knew there was a possibility of catching a giant squid. But it was not something we were banking on," he said. "We weren't planning on many trawls in the first place. We were really approaching it as a learning opportunity, and didn't think we'd score anything really crazy while learning."

The sun had set when the net rose from the water. But the boat's lights showed "something much larger than anything we had seen" in the net, Martinez said.

As it swayed onto the ship, he could see tentacles.

"We didn't have anything prepared ahead of time for storage of such a large specimen," he said. "We had to improvise."

They had alcohol, formaldehyde and specimen jars, but nowhere near enough or a container big enough for the giant squid. Since they didn't have a barrel, they lined a big basket with garbage bags. The squid, with sea water to cover, went into the innermost bag and the whole thing went into the freezer.

Martinez e-mailed photographs to the Smithsonian, which sent them on to Vecchione, who was returning from another research cruise. "It was pretty exciting. Then, when I saw the pictures of it and saw it was in pretty good condition, it became more exciting," Vecchione said.

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