Editorial: The '05 Living Architeuthis Photos
Webmaster thoughts on the first photos of living giant squid, in 2005.
By Tony Morelli
Last updated: 10/1/05
I've been maintaining TONMO.com as a cephalopod interest site since 2000. Since then, there have been two pivotal news events which have caused traffic to my site to increase exponentially (literally).
The first was in April of 2003 when Dr. Steve O'Shea and Kat Bolstad (who are also TONMO.com staff members in their "spare time") announced that their research had yielded realization that Mesonychoteuthis is a uniquely giant squid, and in fact is larger (and has more fearsome features, such as razor-sharp hooks) than the Giant Squid, Architeuthis. In response (and in conjunction with Auckland University of Technology's own PR efforts), news outlets from around the world picked up the story of the newly discovered "Colossal Squid", replete with depictions of "Messie" as a unit of measurement, pitted against such things as a scuba diver and a double-decker bus. As a result, we found Web surfers from around the globe flocking to TONMO.com to interact with Dr. O'Shea and Kat to learn a bit more about these mysterious, sensationalized creatures.
The second event occurred earlier this week when a team of Japanese scientists took 556 digital photos of a living Architeuthis and shared them with the press (albeit one year later), resulting in great fanfare comparable to the Colossal Squid discovery. What has so far not been digested by the press (and is not likely to, as that news cycle has already long passed) is the slightly uglier underside of the way that the living Architeuthis was observed.
No doubt the few pictures which have been released are incredible and represent an historic step forward in understanding these animals. The significance of this event should not be compromised, and for the most part, based solely on the reach of the press coverage, it hasn't. However, when considering that the Architeuthis was lured with bait, then got itself stuck on a hooked lure, and struggled for four hours (as the pictures were taken) to the point of ripping off one of its two tentacles to gain freedom, it becomes apparent that there are deeper aspects of this story worth exploring as well.
The more complicated aspect of this story is the seemingly ubiquitous issue of ethics in wild animal observation. The means to gain the photographs as described above should force us all to ask ourselves whether there isn't a better way to achieve our goal. The accomplishment itself should be celebrated, but the stress imposed on the rare and majestic Architeuthis should be criticized, if only to ensure we can better empathize and respect this species as a fellow creature of Earth and not a fearsome monster of the deep with whom we're embattled.
It would seem a cost-effective approach was taken to secure the images -- a bag of shrimp bait, a submerged digital camera taking 150 KB jpeg images every thirty seconds, and, basically, a giant hook. The quality and value of the photos yet to be released is difficult to predict, but the volume should give us confidence that we'll be reaping much more from this event than we have thus far. Regardless, a debate continues as to the ethics of capturing this data at the expense of the creature. Should the project have been halted before launch (indeed, in the design phase) due to consideration for the welfare of the giant squid? Clearly the impaling hook was the key ingredient in order to halt the squid and take photos, otherwise the project may not have been cost-justified (for example, with photos being taken every 30 seconds, without a hook, the team would risk having its shrimp be eaten without ever capturing Architeuthis on film).
This was a plan with a basic form: the clear goal was to capture images of a living Architeuthis via a process optimized for success, both tactically and financially.
Where to from here?
The second and more obvious question is, where do we go next? The painfully elusive task of photographing Architeuthis has finally been completed with success, without question. The next step for Architeuthis, per Dr. O'Shea, is to capture its living larvae and raise it in captivity. This is undoubtedly a much more logistically difficult task, and is not likely to be any more immune to the debate over ethics in animal study. Still, the fruits of this effort are likely to contain a wealth of new learning; the recorded data should easily surpass this latest event in terms of both captured image and written observation, albeit with younger, smaller specimens (which will grow... and it is unknown what Dr. O'Shea has in mind when that happens!).
While the new photographs are indeed what scientists have been striving to obtain for a decade (and longer), they are not a replacement for the equally epic quest for video footage of Architeuthis in a natural setting. We should expect resources will continue to be expended for expeditions which clandestinely observe and videotape grown specimens under natural conditions.
We'd also be remiss not to acknowledge that the Colossal Squid itself, Mesonychoteuthis, has not yet been observed alive. In modern terms, "Old and Busted: Architeuthis; The New Hotness: Mesonychoteuthis".
In the end, the living Architeuthis project was a complete success and the world has gained (and still stands to gain) invaluable knowledge from the images themselves. The new discovery and the means by which it was made will help propel our understanding of large squid species, so long as we don't neglect what we stood to learn from the event itself, both intended and consequential.