Scientists watch for calamari that bites back

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Posted by on May 03, 2005 at 10:47:12:

Marine biologists anticipate return of jumbo flying squids off B.C. coast

VICTORIA -- A pleased Gudmund (Gudy) Gudmundseth was about to call it quits on a day when the weather was fine and the fishing even better.

He and a buddy had already landed five spring salmon using trolled herring when they got another bite.

Whatever was at the other end was in no hurry to come aboard.

"It went for a huge run, then nothing," Mr. Gudmundseth said. "Another huge run, then nothing. I thought I had a salmon. Then I thought I had a halibut. Then I didn't know what I had."

Aboard Miss Piggy II on a beautiful fall afternoon in the ocean about 20 kilometres southwest of Carmanah Point on Vancouver Island, a self-employed roofing contractor was about to earn a small place in the lore of Canadian marine biology.

The sport fisherman scooped his catch into a net. He remembers thinking, "What the hell?"

What he first suspected was an octopus turned out to be a squid, but a larger one than he had seen before. He was going to throw it back when he noticed a hook had pierced the doomed creature's left eye. As he made a quip about calamari, the squid ejected its ink.

He flung it onto the deck of the powerboat, opened the hatch and kicked it into the hold.

Only later, after he brought it home on ice to Maple Bay, where it was identified by a marine biologist, did Mr. Gudmundseth fully appreciate the nature of the creature.

"I didn't know it was a Humboldt squid," he said. "A man-eater." For the first time in recorded history, a Dosidicus gigas had been captured for study from the temperate waters of the northeastern Pacific. The invertebrate had never been seen this far north until late last year.

Now, as warmer weather again returns to the coast, scientists wonder whether a sequel will be available this summer. Call it Return of the Jumbo Flying Squid.

Some descriptions from witnesses sound like the plot to a horror movie -- water roiling with tentacles; otherworldly creatures suddenly launching into the air from beneath the surface; nightfall bringing to the surface vicious predators that slip back into the depths at daybreak, like vampires of the sea.

A Humboldt squid can grow to the size and weight of a hockey player. So, imagine Todd Bertuzzi with bulging eyes, eight arms, two tentacles, three hearts, a beak for a mouth, a brain wrapped around his esophagus and gullet with a willingness -- nay, eagerness -- to dine on his own kind every other meal, and you get a sense of how the squid has earned such a fearsome reputation.

Mexican fishermen call the creature el diablo rojo -- the red devil.

"They're just the kind of thing nightmares are made of," said Jim Cosgrove, the natural history manager at the Royal B.C. Museum.

"It's a big animal, a powerful animal, a hunter. They can drag you down. They're going to get a bad rep. That's nature's way."

Mr. Cosgrove made the official identification of the fisherman's catch last October. He knew it was not a neon flying squid, Ommastrephes bartrami, common in these waters, as soon as he saw the suckers. The Humboldt squid's suckers, which have a semi-circular row of small but razor-sharp teeth, swivel 360 degrees, corkscrewing into hapless prey.

The creature -- named RBCM 004-050-001 -- was fixed in formalin for eight days before being placed in a 60-per-cent solution of isopropanol. Once it was ready for permanent preservation, scientists measured the small female's length (1.36 metres) and weight (6.4 kilograms).

The Humboldt squid's range stretches from California and the waters off Mexico, where it supports a commercial fishery for export to Japan, to as far south as Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. It was first reported as far north as Oregon in 1997 and San Francisco in 1932.

Last year, the museum obtained 11 specimens captured in nearby waters. Some were seen as far north as Alaska.

Ask why the squid has arrived in British Columbia's coastal waters and Mr. Cosgrove has more questions than answers.

"Did they follow a food fish moving north? Are they here for good, or are they here for a short time? Are they going to go after juvenile salmon? You get one answer and 10 questions."

A glass case at the museum contains the remains of a Humboldt squid in a display about global warming titled, "Nature on the move."

Those thriving in the warmer climate include the ocean sunfish, the burrowing owl, the gopher snake, the American badger, the brittle prickly pear and the Garry oak.

Those wilting and on the retreat include the Pacific salmon, the northern abalone, the northern hawk owl, the Vancouver Island marmot, the western red cedar as well as the 12-spotted skimmer, a dragonfly.

Mr. Cosgrove suspects warmer waters are responsible for the Humboldt's arrival, as data from the ocean-chemistry branch of the Institute of Ocean Sciences showed in August the warmest surface temperatures ever recorded. One station checked in at 18.9 C.

"Like bathwater," he said.

Warmer waters this year are hard to imagine, he said, although a mild El Nino, which should increase temperature, is expected.

Mr. Cosgrove is a long-time scuba diver who early in his career worked with octopuses in underwater shows at a tourist attraction in Victoria's Inner Harbour.

He has since assisted many underwater film crews, including one shoot in which he had a narrow escape.

An octopus latched on to his arm, his chest and his face.

He struggled for three minutes to prevent the regulator from being pulled from his mouth, until the octopus tired and retreated to its den. The diver surfaced with three red welts on his forehead as a souvenir of his close call.

Seeking a Humboldt squid underwater is "like looking for grizzly bears" on land, he said, a project in which caution, as well as a good escape route, is essential.

Another reason why fishermen fear the Humboldt squid is its behaviour toward its own species in danger.

A squid caught on a jig is likely to be devoured by its brethren before being hauled aboard.

Add to its rap sheet the crime of cannibalism.

Mr. Cosgrove and his fellow marine biologists are curious to know if the squid will return. They have asked the abalone fishery, which works along the continental shelf, to be on the lookout for the strange creatures.

"It's like waiting for Christmas," Mr. Cosgrove said.

"We have to wait until the end of summer to see if there are any boxes to open."

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