Under an orange moon, Jacquie and I are 75 feet deep in the Sea of Cortez waiting for demons to appear. As we search the black water below our camera lights, a green glow begins to move toward us. Bioluminescence is signaling the approach of a shoal of Giant Humboldt squid rising to investigate us. There’s no doubt they’re hungry…
The Master of the Desert Sea
For five years I had been studying to make this dive in the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, which divides Mexico’s Baja California peninsula from the mainland. Along with my diving partner Jacquie Cozens and a small crew, I was there filming Humboldt: The Man-Eating Squid. This documentary, which is the first episode in a series called “Dangerous Waters,” is scheduled to be released in January.
For most people, the word “squid” probably conjures images of deep-fried appetizers, not flesh-eating carnivores. But the truth is, Humboldt squid have approximately 1,200 sucker discs, each one lined with 20 to 26 needle-sharp teeth. This allows the Humboldt to attack its prey with more than 24,000 teeth at once. And nestled in its bed of eight muscular arms and two feeding tentacles is a disproportionately large, knife-edged beak similar to a parrot’s. But the Humboldt is much larger than a parrot: they have been found as large as 14 feet in length and weighing more than 700 pounds.
In addition to the Humboldt’s enormity and impressive array of weapons, this magnificent mollusk possesses a legendary ferocity. The local Mexican fishermen call it Rojo Diablo, or Red Demon. When I arrived in Mexico for the dive, several fishermen told tales of how people had experienced violent deaths after falling in the water with these red demons: “…they would be pulled down and devoured in moments.”
These stories were true and I knew it. So I developed equipment and techniques to counter a possible attack. These precautions included: anti-squid armor suits; armor plating for the vulnerable parts of my mixed-gas rebreather; anti-squid cage; and back-to-back diving techniques. To prevent being pulled down by a pack of squid, steel cables connected divers to the boat at all times. If these measures sound extreme, I can assure you they weren’t. Each one came into play and proved to be completely necessary.
Armor Is The Only Way To Survive This Dive
One particular moment I will never forget occurred during the first dive of the scouting expedition. Not wanting to endanger my crew, I decided to perform the first dive alone, tethered to the support boat. The crew was to stay on deck to tend my cable and pull me up in the event of trouble. As I was about to go over the side of the boat, my Mexican guide touched my arm and stared into my eyes. Although he didn’t say a word, his face said it all. He thought I was going to die. He believed the Humboldts were going to devour me, armor and all. Despite his lack of enthusiasm, I patted him on the shoulder, smiled, and continued into the water for the first time.
As soon as I hit the water I rolled onto my stomach and checked my rebreather’s function. Next, I rolled upright and reached for my camera system, but as soon as my ears were above the water I could hear the crew yelling to me: “They are right underneath you, look out!” A surge of excitement and dread filled me as I looked down past my fins. There were more than 20 giant squid right below me — not even ten feet away! Ranging in length from five to six feet, they hovered nearby just looking at me, studying me. My splash entry was like ringing a dinner bell. Suddenly, about 10 squid began to move in for a closer look. As they neared, they flashed from white to pink to bright red then back to white, all within a split second. It was beautiful! They looked like animals from another planet, totally unearthly.
As I floated there transfixed, a large squid moved to within two feet and flashed again. Mesmerized by the strobe effect, I didn’t see that another squid was rushing in from my left. Bam! It hit me with a tentacular strike that felt like being hit with a baseball bat square in the ribs. Shocked by the power of the strike and unable to breathe because of a cramp in my chest, I turned to see what had hit me and saw four more squid headed toward me. The first came in so fast that I could barely track it with the camera, and then Bam! It struck the camera, which in turn struck me in the face. I was starting to feel like I was in a barroom brawl.
After five attacks of equal ferocity, the magnificent monsters decided I was inedible and had no further use for me. With a few blasts from their massive jet funnels, they disappeared into the depths within seconds. Dazed and excited, I realized the entire ordeal lasted less than one minute. After dangling in the water for 30 minutes looking for any signs of their return, I surfaced and climbed into the boat. I later discovered bruises on me the size of oranges, as well as several scratches in my anti-squid armor suit. The system was working, but each attack left its mark — and this was just the first dive of dozens yet to come.
The Humbolt Squid
Knowing the harsh requirements of this expedition, I hand-picked all of the video and lighting equipment. No glitter or promotional gear was excepted. Of course, the most important equipment were those items used to ensure human safety. But these were followed closely by the image-gathering systems. In fact, some of my team would probably tell you that I considered my camera to be more important than my own safety, hence the standing order: “If I am in trouble and need to be rescued, get the camera first, then me.” This became the joke of the expedition, but I wasn’t laughing.
My normal recording format is Betacam, but to capture the underwater video images Jacquie and I selected a camcorder that had previously proven to be highly reliable, the Sony DCR TRV-900. It is fairly small so when it was placed into an underwater housing, a diver and the camera could fit into a relatively small anti-squid cage. Indeed, with 500 lines of resolution, a flip-out screen, IEEE-1394 FireWire DV in/out, compatibility with a 52mm 0.5 Kenko glass wide-angle lens, and outstanding ease of use, it proved to be the best choice for us.
Next, I had to get the right underwater housings. My selection was based on durability, reliability, and depth rating. And since we were facing one solid month of filming, day in and day out, as well as hard impacts from Giant Humboldt squid attacks and dives down to 200fsw (feet of seawater), only two housings made the cut. Those two were the Seacam Subsea Systems housing and the Light & Motion Bluefin housing. I decided to use them both.
Lighting was the next problem. I needed systems that would deliver the whitest possible color temperature without bleaching out the squid when they flashed colors from bright red to solid white at close range. Again, the choice was to use two separate systems: the Seacam Subsea Systems Pegasus Wing with halogen lights, and the Light & Motion H.I.D. lights. Even though halogen lights have a slightly reddish color temperature, they were more predictable than H.I.D. Also, the surface-supplied power of the Seacam system proved invaluable. With it, we could film for hours with several 250W lights and not worry about batteries running out.
The first time Jacquie lit up her H.I.D. lights underwater I was amazed. We were on a test dive at night on a reef in La Paz, Mexico, to film nocturnal reef life for fill footage. Using the Seacam halogen lights to find our subjects, we would then switch to her H.I.D. system for filming. The lights only had about 40 minutes of burn time but the color was beautiful white — more white than I had ever seen underwater. It almost looked like the poor little fish she was filming were going to start boiling. However, the Light & Motion H.I.D. lights seemed to have an unexplainable glitch in the ballast. For some reason they would work beautifully on some dives and completely fail on others.
During the third day of filming the Humboldt squid, the Light & Motion housing began to fail — a button or two at first, then the whole thing just died. Bad timing to be sure. For the remainder of the expedition, we would have to turn the camcorder on, set the manual focal length, press record, then quickly slide it into the housing, lock it up, and jump in to film the squid. Our makeshift system worked, but it was an irritant at best. Several hours of DV tape were wasted, but we had no choice and ultimately got the shots we needed.
On the other hand, even with an extremely violent series of Giant Humboldt squid attacks, the Seacam system never had a failure. It was anvil-tough and very simple. In fact, it proved to be sturdy above and beyond the call of duty on one really violent attack. A large Humboldt had come up on me from behind and was trying to chew into my neck. I struggled to hit it with my camera, weakening my grip in the process. As I struggled to right myself and get my dive gear back in order, I accidentally let the camera go. Since the sea bottom was always more than 1,000 feet below me, I kept the camera system a pound positively buoyant so that if I ever dropped it, it would float. That’s exactly what happened. The squid had dragged me down nearly 75 feet before I dropped my camera, and it quickly floated up just out of Jacquie’s reach and continued to accelerate until it popped to the surface striking the dive boat. My safety diver, Thad Hogan, saw the camera surface and must have thought I had been killed because he knew that in 20 years of diving I had never dropped a camera. He jumped into the water to retrieve it and shortly afterward I surfaced right next to him. His expression was priceless! Then, after a quick inspection of the housing, I determined it was in good condition and went back to work.
Based on my field experience, the Light & Motion video systems failed to live up to the challenge. They look great and have lots of features, but just didn’t hold up. However, their H.I.D. lights were wonderful when they worked, and the images they illuminated were some of the most beautiful underwater shots I have seen.
Nevertheless, for my future projects I am going to use Seacam products exclusively because they are expedition-tough, extremely reliable, and modularly flexible. In addition, the owner of Seacam, Ed Ivy, was extremely supportive and helped engineer several peripheral video and lighting systems to facilitate our needs. Truly the best service I’ve ever gotten.
…From the depths of the sea, several five-foot squid are now hovering around Jacquie flashing colors in what we had learned was pre-attack behavior. I could see her readying herself for the impacts. Then, suddenly, they all retreated with blinding speed, leaving us with only one approaching squid. But this was no ordinary squid.
The largest Humboldt ever filmed was about six feet and weighed nearly 100 pounds. The Humboldt closing in on Jacquie was huge. Truly the giant of the shoal, he was nearly seven feet in length and about three feet across, and must have weighed 150 pounds. He seemed to move slower than the others, but then I realized his size merely made him look slower. He came in to about two feet of Jacquie’s lure, then stopped cold. He studied the lure, and then I honestly think he saw the monofilament line because he deliberately raised up along it, right up to Jacquie’s eye level. Then, he just hovered there, glaring into her faceplate. He did not flash color or attack, he just sat there for about four seconds and studied her.
I was horrified that this monster was going to attack and kill her. She was so much smaller than this creature that I feared she would have no chance of survival against an all-out attack. So I moved in quickly to help, knowing any second the situation could explode. Amazingly, the enormous squid just hovered there, intensely studying her with no aggressive actions. Then, slowly, without concern for my approach, it flapped its huge fins and glided back down to the black depths of the sea. Much to Jacquie’s credit, she filmed the entire event.
Scott Cassell has been a mixed-gas commercial diver for nearly 22 years. His film credits include stock footage of white sharks, blue sharks, and Mako sharks, some of which has aired during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. He is currently filming “Dangerous Waters,” a five-part series about the least-known and most-dangerous animals in the world. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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