Edith Widder, Part 2: Edie and the Giant Squid

Category: General Article

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Dr. Edith Widder had had great success developing and using optical lures in conjunction with sensitive cameras to photograph deep sea animals (or their bioluminescence). In March 2011, Edie presented some of her video footage during a TED (Technology, Education, Design) Talk. Afterwards, she was approached by a marine biologist named Mike deGruy who wanted to know if using optical lures might help in photographing the giant squid (Genus Architeuthis).

Capturing a giant squid on film had long been considered the “Holy Grail” of natural history cinematography. Many expeditions from all over the world had set out to film these immense and elusive animals. All of them had failed. After researching it more, Edie was certain that a simple mistake had doomed all of the previous attempts.

“Giant squid have those giant eyes and all our bright lights were scaring them away,” she told the Oceanscape Network. “In order to lure them in, we needed a more subtle technique.”

Working with her colleagues in Australia and the United States, Edie created a silent camera platform called the Medusa Lander which used red light to see in the dark. The Medusa was lowered from a ship and then used the e-jelly optical lure and specialized cameras to photograph animals as they passed nearby. In 2012, Edie convinced a Japanese broadcasting company and the Discovery Channel to test her approach in a new search for the giant squid — and it worked. Edie and the TV crew captured the first images ever of this cephalopod in its native habitat. She shared this footage in another TED Talk in February 2013.

“It was like [the squid] was teasing us,” she told the audience at TED. “Doing this fan-dance — first you see me, then you don’t. It did four such teasing appearances and then on the fifth it came in and totally wowed us.”

Edie estimates that the squid they filmed was as tall as a two-story house.

“How could something that big live in our ocean and yet remain unfilmed until now?” she wondered. “We’ve only explored about 5% of our ocean. There are great discoveries yet to be made down there…”

Next Steps, New Technology

So what’s next for Edie? What’s the next challenge to be overcome and the next discovery to be made? She said that one of the major difficulties for her and other deep sea explorers is how to get these fragile animals up to shipboard laboratories without injuring them or causing them to exhaust their bioluminescence before they can be observed. Edie would also like to photograph how the Cookie cutter shark uses bioluminescence in its feeding strategy. In both of these cases, older technology may have to be adapted or new tech developed.

“This is an ongoing process,” Edie told the Oceanscape Network. “A lot of people don’t realize that sometimes the tools you need don’t exist. It may be up to you to create them.”

For more about Edie’s work, visit the ORCA website.

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About the S.T.E.A.M. Powered Program

This multi-part series features five women who are at the tops of their fields in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Over the 2015-16 school year, one week will be dedicated to each person, highlighting their education, careers and innovative contributions to their various disciplines — including the discovery of new species, the exploration of hostile ecosystems and the conservation of marine species.

Giant Squid Fact Sheet

Learn more about this mysterious deep-sea predator by downloading this one page fact sheet.