If you’re going to find strange creatures of the deep it’ll be off the coast of New Zealand, where legendary giants have long roamed.
So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that researchers exploring New Zealand’s deep waters on the hunt for elusive glow-in-the-dark sharks and hoki managed to catch an unexpected hitchhiker: a 4-meter (13-foot) giant squid.
Researchers aboard the New Zealand-based National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd (NIWA) research vessel Tangaroa were on an expedition to survey hoki, New Zealand’s most valuable commercial fish, in the Chatham Rise – an area of ocean floor to the east of New Zealand that makes up part of the "lost continent" of Zealandia.
At 7.30am on the morning of January 21, scientists were hauling up their trawler net from a depth of 442 meters (1,450 feet) when they were surprised to spot tentacles in amongst their catch. Large tentacles.
According to voyage leader and NIWA fisheries scientist Darren Stevens, who was on watch, it took six members of staff to lift the giant squid out of the net. Despite the squid being 4 meters long and weighing about 110 kilograms (240 pounds), Stevens said he thought the squid was “on the smallish side,” compared to other behemoths caught.
Though giant squids are very rare, they can be found around the world, from Japan to the Gulf of Mexico, but they most often seem to crop up around New Zealand waters.
“New Zealand is kind of the giant squid capital of the world – anywhere else a giant squid is caught in a net would be a massive deal. But there’s been a few caught off New Zealand," Stevens said in a statement.
“It’s only the second one I’ve ever seen. I’ve been on about 40 trips on Tangaroa, and most surveys are about a month, and I’ve only ever seen two. That’s pretty rare.”
With eight arms, and two long tentacles tipped with sharp suckers, often twice the length of the rest of the squid, two giant eyes (the largest in the animal kingdom at 25 centimeters/10 inches) and a sharp beak that can devour fish and other squids, Architeuthis dux is the stuff of legends.
Because New Zealand actually hosts other giant squid specimens, the researchers onboard only took scientific samples of the valuable bits – the head, eyes, reproductive organs, and stomach. A tiny bone structure in its head will be used to try and age the squid, something there is no way of doing yet.
“We took the stomach because virtually nothing is known about a giant squid’s diet because every time people seem to catch one, there's very rarely anything in their stomachs,” Stevens said.
“Getting two giant squid eyes is apparently enough for a scientific paper. They're really rare, and you need a fresh one. So it was a really unique set of circumstances to get two fresh eyes.”
While the squid was fortuitous, Dr Jérôme Mallefet of UCLouvain, Belgium – the world's leading expert on bioluminescent sharks – was determined to capture and photograph glow-in-the-dark sharks. He even set up a darkroom aboard the RV Tangaroa in anticipation, and was rewarded handsomely by capturing the first photographic evidence of bioluminescent sharks producing light in New Zealand waters.
According to Dr Mallefet, 11 percent of known shark species can produce bioluminescent light, living in near-total darkness at more than 200 meters (656 feet) down. He photographed the southern lantern shark, lucifer dogfish, and seal shark, all of which emit a blue light, as shorter wavelengths travel well through deep waters.
We shouldn't really be surprised that both the Kraken and creatures that glow live in the waters surrounding New Zealand. Its land creatures have always erred on the side of unusual too.