TED2013

Edith Widder: How we found the giant squid

Filmed:

Humankind has been looking for the giant squid (Architeuthis) since we first started taking pictures underwater. But the elusive deep-sea predator could never be caught on film. Oceanographer and inventor Edith Widder shares the key insight -- and the teamwork -- that helped to capture the squid on film for the first time.

- Marine biologist
Edith Widder combines her expertise in research and technological innovation with a commitment to stopping and reversing the degradation of our marine environment. Full bio

The Kraken, a beast so terrifying
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it was said to devour men and ships and whales,
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and so enormous it could be mistaken for an island.
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In assessing the merits of such tales,
00:26
it's probably wise to keep in mind that old sailor's saw
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that the only difference between a fairytale and a sea story
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is a fairytale begins, "Once upon a time,"
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and a sea story begins, "This ain't no shit." (Laughter)
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Every fish that gets away
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grows with every telling of the tale.
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Nevertheless, there are giants in the ocean,
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and we now have video proof,
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as those of you that saw the Discovery Channel documentary are no doubt aware.
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I was one of the three scientists on this expedition
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that took place last summer off Japan.
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I'm the short one.
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The other two are Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera and Dr. Steve O'Shea.
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I owe my participation in this now-historic event
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to TED.
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In 2010, there was a TED event called Mission Blue
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held aboard the Lindblad Explorer in the Galapagos
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as part of the fulfillment of Sylvia Earle's TED wish.
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I spoke about a new way of exploring the ocean,
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one that focuses on attracting animals instead of scaring them away.
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Mike deGruy was also invited,
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and he spoke with great passion about his love of the ocean,
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and he also talked to me about applying my approach
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to something he's been involved with for a very long time,
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which is the hunt for the giant squid.
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It was Mike that got me invited to the squid summit,
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a gathering of squid experts at the Discovery Channel
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that summer during Shark Week. (Laughter)
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I gave a talk on unobtrusive viewing
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and optical luring of deep sea squid
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in which I emphasized the importance
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of using quiet, unobtrusive platforms for exploration.
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This came out of hundreds of dives I have made,
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farting around in the dark
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using these platforms,
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and my impression that I saw more animals
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working from the submersible
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than I did with either of the remote-operated vehicles.
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But that could just be because the submersible has a wider field of view.
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But I also felt like I saw more animals
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working with the Tiburon than the Ventana,
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two vehicles with the same field of view
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but different propulsion systems.
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So my suspicion was that it might have something to do with the amount of noise they make.
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So I set up a hydrophone on the bottom of the ocean,
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and I had each of these fly by at the same speed and distance
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and recorded the sound they made.
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The Johnson Sea-Link -- (whirring noise) --
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which you can probably just barely hear here,
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uses electric thrusters -- very, very quiet.
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The Tiburon also uses electric powered thrusters.
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It's also pretty quiet, but a bit noisier. (Louder whirring noise)
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But most deep-diving ROVs these days use hydraulics
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and they sound like the Ventana. (Loud beeping noise)
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I think that's got to be scaring a lot of animals away.
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So for the deep sea squid hunt,
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I proposed using an optical lure
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attached to a camera platform
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with no thrusters, no motors,
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just a battery-powered camera,
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and the only illumination coming from red light
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that's invisible to most deep-sea animals
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that are adapted to see primarily blue.
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That's visible to our eye,
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but it's the equivalent of infrared in the deep sea.
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So this camera platform, which we called the Medusa,
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could just be thrown off the back of the ship,
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attached to a float at the surface with over 2,000 feet of line,
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it would just float around passively carried by the currents,
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and the only light visible to the animals in the deep
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would be the blue light of the optical lure,
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which we called the electronic jellyfish, or e-jelly,
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because it was designed to imitate
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the bioluminescent display
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of the common deep sea jellyfish Atolla.
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Now, this pinwheel of light that the Atolla produces
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is known as a bioluminescent burglar alarm
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and is a form of defense.
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The reason that the electronic jellyfish worked as a lure
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is not because giant squid eat jellyfish,
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but it's because this jellyfish only resorts to producing this light
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when it's being chewed on by a predator
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and its only hope for escape
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may be to attract the attention of a larger predator
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that will attack its attacker
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and thereby afford it an opportunity for escape.
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It's a scream for help, a last-ditch attempt for escape,
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and a common form of defense in the deep sea.
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The approach worked.
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Whereas all previous expeditions had failed to garner
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a single video glimpse of the giant,
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we managed six, and the first triggered wild excitement.
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Edith Widder (on video): Oh my God. Oh my God! Are you kidding me?Other scientists: Oh ho ho! That's just hanging there.
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EW: It was like it was teasing us, doing a kind of fan dance --
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now you see me, now you don't --
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and we had four such teasing appearances,
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and then on the fifth, it came in and totally wowed us.
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(Music) Narrator: (Speaking in Japanese)
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Scientists: Ooh. Bang! Oh my God! Whoa!
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(Applause)
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EW: The full monty.
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What really wowed me about that
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was the way it came in up over the e-jelly
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and then attacked the enormous thing next to it,
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which I think it mistook for the predator on the e-jelly.
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But even more incredible was the footage shot
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from the Triton submersible.
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What was not mentioned in the Discovery documentary
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was that the bait squid that Dr. Kubodera used,
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a one-meter long diamondback squid
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had a light attached to it, a squid jig
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of the type that longline fishermen use,
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and I think it was this light
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that brought the giant in.
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Now, what you're seeing
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is the intensified camera's view under red light,
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and that's all Dr. Kubodera could see when the giant comes in here.
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And then he got so excited,
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he turned on his flashlight because he wanted to see better,
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and the giant didn't run away,
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so he risked turning on the white lights on the submersible,
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bringing a creature of legend
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from the misty history into high-resolution video.
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It was absolutely breathtaking,
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and had this animal had its feeding tentacles intact
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and fully extended,
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it would have been as tall as a two-story house.
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How could something that big
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live in our ocean and yet remain unfilmed until now?
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We've only explored about five percent of our ocean.
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There are great discoveries yet to be made down there,
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fantastic creatures representing millions of years of evolution
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and possibly bioactive compounds
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that could benefit us in ways that we can't even yet imagine.
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Yet we have spent only a tiny fraction
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of the money on ocean exploration
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that we've spent on space exploration.
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We need a NASA-like organization for ocean exploration,
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because we need to be exploring and protecting
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our life support systems here on Earth.
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We need — thank you. (Applause)
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Exploration is the engine that drives innovation.
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Innovation drives economic growth.
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So let's all go exploring,
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but let's do it in a way that doesn't scare the animals away,
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or, as Mike deGruy once said,
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"If you want to get away from it all
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and see something you've never seen,
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or have an excellent chance of seeing something that no one's ever seen,
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get in a sub."
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He should have been with us for this adventure.
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We miss him.
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(Applause)
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Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Edith Widder - Marine biologist
Edith Widder combines her expertise in research and technological innovation with a commitment to stopping and reversing the degradation of our marine environment.

Why you should listen

A specialist in bioluminescence, Edith Widder helps design and invent new submersible instruments and equipment to study bioluminescence and enable unobtrusive observation of deep-sea environments. Her innovative tools for exploration have produced footage of rare and wonderful bioluminescent displays and never-before-seen denizens of the deep, including, most recently, the first video ever recorded of the giant squid, Architeuthis, in its natural habitat.

In 2005 she founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association (ORCA), which is dedicated to protecting aquatic ecosystems and the species they sustain through the development of innovative technologies and science-based conservation action.;  In an effort to protect and revitalize the ocean she loves she has been focusing on developing tools for finding and tracking pollution -- a major threat to all of our water ecosystems and ultimately to human health. She was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2006.

In 2012, Widder was among the team that filmed the giant squid (Architeuthis) for the first time in its home ocean.

More profile about the speaker
Edith Widder | Speaker | TED.com