Using a digital camera dangling from a line nearly 3,300 feet long, scientists for the first time have photographed a live giant squid, the tentacled deep-sea monster that is the largest invertebrate on Earth.
Researchers Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori, reporting in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said a giant squid about 26 feet long attacked a baited jig, or lure, trailing below a marker buoy about 500 miles south of Tokyo, near the Ogasawara Islands in the Pacific.
"The initial attack was captured on camera and shows the two long tentacles wrapped in a ball around the bait," wrote Kubodera, of Japan's National Science Museum and Mori, from the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association. "The giant squid became snagged on the jig."
The camera took 550 digital images over the next several hours while the squid tried repeatedly to free itself. It finally escaped but lost 18 feet of tentacle in the struggle. DNA analysis matched the tentacle with fragments taken from the remains of other giant squids over the years.
The giant squid, known by its biological name, Architeuthis dux, has been famous in legend and was immortalized by Jules Verne's novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," in which an ax-wielding Captain Nemo and harpooner Ned Land lead the crew of the Nautilus in a vicious battle to free the submarine.
Despite the stories, however, very little is known about the giant squid. The first complete specimen, a dead animal captured by fishermen off Newfoundland, was found in 1874. Subsequent remains, either washed up on beaches or trapped in fishnets, have appeared occasionally in high latitudes -- Canadian and Japanese waters, or off Tasmania and Australia.
"But what does that mean?" asked Paul Loiselle, curator of freshwater fishes at the New York Aquarium. "Is that because they like colder waters, or do they simply rot faster in the tropics?"
Kubodera and Mori had been hunting the squid for three years by following sperm whales between September and December to a deep-water feeding ground off the Ogasawara Islands. Sperm whales hunt giant squids for food.
The researchers suspended a line in water nearly 4,000 feet deep, with a digital camera and a light looking down on two jigs baited with common squids about 10 inches long. The team also attached crushed shrimp as an odor lure.
The squid attacked the lower bait at a depth of 3,300 feet, wrapping its two long tentacles (squids also have eight shorter ones) around the jig and immediately snagging itself. In attempting to break free, it towed the lure up nearly 1,300 feet, brought it back down and swam sideways with it until it could no longer be spotted by the camera.
"Four hours and 13 minutes after becoming snagged, the attached tentacle broke, as seen by sudden slackness in the line," the authors wrote. Once on the surface "the recovered section of tentacle was still functioning," they continued, "with the large suckers of the tentacle club repeatedly gripping the boat deck and any offered fingers."