Kraken’s Cousin: Searching for the Mysterious Jumbo Squid

Squid Humboldt Gilly Fishermen

William Gilly has seen a Kraken. The mythical squid beast with ship-dooming tentacles surely exists, Gilly says, because he’s seen a baby one. “It was this big around,” he says, making a circle as big as a tire with his arms, a proud, boyish smile on his face. Fishermen spotted the carcass of the 8-foot-long, 400-pound baby giant squid in Monterey Bay three years ago, according to Gilly.

“If you’re an assistant professor proposing to study it, I don’t think you’d get tenure,” he says. “But one has to exist.”

Gilly’s laboratory at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove brims with squid décor: stuffed animals, preserved specimens, glass figurines, drawings, photographs, plastic toys, and piñatas. He has studied these denizens of the sea for almost four decades, and he’s handled countless numbers of the fabled Kraken’s smaller cousins, the very real jumbo Humboldt squid. Like their giant counterparts, Humboldt squid are enigmatic. No one has seen them mate or lay eggs. No one has watched them develop from egg to adult. No one knows how many exist.

These tentacled titans have now ensnared marine biologists with another riddle: They have left their normal gathering grounds in the Sea of Cortez in Baja California, Mexico. Fishermen worry that a critical part of their livelihood may be gone. Many families have depended on Humboldt squid since the slippery creatures moved in droves into the Gulf of California’s Guaymas Basin in the 1970s.

“We have a huge problem on our hands,” says coordinator Juan Pedro Vela Arreola of the Alianza de Ribereños y Armadores, an association of fishermen and producers in Mexico. “Fishermen are desperate.”

Gilly blames the most recent El Niño in the Pacific Ocean for forcing some Humboldt squid to migrate away. Others have physically shrunk—just one bizarre adaptation among their many strange body-shifting behaviors. Leaders of Mexican fisheries and scientists are banding together to figure out whether the diablos rojos (red devils) will come back, and how to cope in the meantime.

“You have to learn to live in a very unpredictable way,” says marine biologist Unai Markaida of El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Campeche, Mexico. “You live like a squid, and you adapt to the life it leads.”

Humboldt squid feeding in Monterey Bay. (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research

Widespread changes in the temperatures of Earth’s oceans have compelled many creatures, including the powerful Humboldt squid, to seek new climes. Their dominion usually stretches from Argentina to California, but more recently they’ve been spotted in Canada and Alaska. Scientists don’t yet understand how the squid are settling into their new hangouts. This month, a few Humboldts stranded themselves on the beaches of Pacific Grove, Calif. Whale-watching boats have spotted them near Point Pinos. These sightings might be a sign they are returning, Gilly says.

Maybe the giant eyeball found at a beach came also from one of these giant squitds ( via ).