Sex and the Squid Man

21:03, Feb 03 2013
Steve O’Shea described the giant squid as ‘‘an amazing iridescent thing. This amazing silvery animal sitting there, watching us as intently as we were watching it’’.

It came out of the blackness, and disappeared into blackness. Three metres long, with silvery tentacles and a blue-green eye as big as your head.

The Kraken. A "sea monster". The stuff of Greek myths and Nordic legends that have plagued ocean explorers, sailors and scientists for centuries and provided one of the last great remaining mysteries of the deep.

It came towards the camera quietly. The only light was from infrared sensors, designed to be invisible to the peculiar creatures that live deep below the surface. As the creature edged closer the scientist in the submarine held his breath. After so much time, so much money, could this really be the elusive giant squid?

The mission to find the "monster" had left port six weeks earlier, setting sail in June 2012 from Sagami Bay for the Ogasawara islands, 1000km south of Tokyo. Funded by the Discovery Channel and Japan's national broadcaster NHK, the trip saw three world-renowned squid experts brought together aboard the luxury research vessel Alucia and provided with the equipment needed to lure the squid close enough to capture it on film for the first time. Each would use a different method - bait, chemical or light - in the hope that at least one would prove successful and the millions of dollars invested in the documentary wouldn't go to waste.

Severine Hannam blends the defrosted squid intended to attract a giant squid.

Japanese researcher Tsunemi Kubodera chose bait. He tied a 1 metre-long squid to a hook and descended 1000m into the water in total darkness, even turning off the submarine's heating, to ensure the complete quiet that he believed would help coax the giant near.

Florida-based oceanographer Edith Widder chose light. She built a bio-luminescent decoy that mimicked a panicking jellyfish to draw the cautious creature toward the camera.

New Zealand marine biologist Steve O'Shea, however, wasn't worried about frightening his prey. His submarine plunged downwards like a huge disco ball, in a blaze of light, O'Shea inside, singing Neil Diamond and squirting out slurry of ground-up giant squid through an oversized hypodermic needle. O'Shea - part genius, part renegade - chose sex. He believed a chemical attractant contained within the liquidised squid would be the best thing to attract the giant he knows as Architeuthis, a quarry he has spent a lifetime pursuing.


A giant squid.

"I've always focused on the reproduction of the squid. That's the period when they lose it," he says.

"So I thought that if you can throw something into the water column that can bring a sex-crazed animal to you, that would give us the best chance to film it, to keep it for the longest amount of time."


O'Shea is likely best known to New Zealanders as "the squid man" who helped preserve the colossal squid - the giant's big brother - fished out of the Antarctic by a trawler and now on display in Te Papa. He has been a prominent figure in conservation for years, arguing for marine reserves and against invasive fishing practices.

His love affair with Architeuthis began more than 15 years ago, while he was working for Niwa, after he took charge of a giant squid washed up near Wellington. He declared a quest to capture a live squid, a juvenile, and raise it in captivity.

As to why this love affair has lasted so long, O'Shea can only point to a promise he made on an early documentary. "I said I would, and that I would not give up until I had achieved it, or it had been achieved. It was just my word, which was all I ever had, and to this day have."

At times over the years he has come astonishingly close. In 2000, O'Shea set the world record for deep-sea squid curation after he kept a squid that normally lives 300m below sea level alive in a tank for five months. A year later, he managed to catch a batch of baby giant squid, called paralarval, but they died before he reached shore, poisoned by a plastic compound in the tank. On another trip he managed to find a baby squid, but it slipped through his grasp and disappeared.

The failures were expensive. Expeditions can cost millions. Like the other scientists, O'Shea knew patience could run out and the Ogasawara islands expedition could be a last chance.

On board Alucia the team kept a gruelling schedule of trips beneath the surface. O'Shea and his research assistant Severine Hannam spent the days blending the 200kg of frozen giant squid they brought with them. The scientists smoked cigarettes and talked through their methods, holding nightly debriefs on the day's events. The documentary makers were patient, O'Shea says, but it must have been torturous - filming hours of blue water and the occasional nosy shark.

"There's no markers anywhere, you're just in blue water," O'Shea says. "And it's not blue, it's black. There's no perception of depth. And then all of a sudden a squid will look at you or a shark, or a fish, and then disappear."

Each trip lasted between eight and 10 hours. It was dangerous. Sometimes the equipment failed. But it wasn't frightening, O'Shea says. "My biggest concern going down was not being able to smoke for the eight hours."

It was on trip 56 that Architeuthis appeared. Kubodera was around 700m down in the submarine, a whole diamondback squid tied just metres from the viewing window. It approached in the glow of the infrared. The film crew began to roll. As it latched on to the bait, Kubodera turned the white lights on.

"My jaw just dropped," says O'Shea. "Ku's first words were something like, ‘ooh this is good', with no intonation in his voice. And I'm sitting up on the boat watching it and I'm crying."

It was nothing like the dead squid he'd worked on before. "I've seen 130 of these animals after they've been ripped from the ocean. They're always white, they're always lacking skin, they're always damaged, they've always been frozen and collapsed and defrosted and there's fluids everywhere and they look pretty horrible and the eyes are always munted.

"But this . . . was just this amazing iridescent thing. This amazing silvery animal sitting there, watching us as intently as we were watching it. It was just phenomenal. It is no monster, it is just purely magnificent, the most magnificent thing you've ever seen."

The creature stayed for nearly 20 minutes before growing tired and swimming off. When the bait was pulled up, it had barely been nibbled.

So how do you feel when you find the thing you've been searching for your whole life?

"It's just the most amazing thing because if you've dedicated a lot of your adult career towards seeing it and you're finally seeing it . . . you can say ‘well that's done' and put the baby to bed. But . . . there was also this emptiness there. It's hard to describe how I felt. There was also intense satisfaction and joy."


Bitterness. That's another feeling. O'Shea doesn't say it, but you can hear it in his voice. In his emails. In his long, pensive blog posts about his life since fleeing New Zealand under a dark cloud of depression and suspicion when he resigned from his job at the Auckland University of Technology in 2011.

O'Shea nearly didn't make the trip on which the squid was found. While it was still in the planning stages, he had been having an affair with one of his PhD students, a girl for whom he left his wife of 20 years. To say it ended badly is an understatement. There was heartbreak. Accusations. An employment investigation. Eventually, defeated, O'Shea resigned and fled to Australia, where he lived in a tent for eight months. When the research trip was proposed, he was still tenting, "incommunicado", not thinking about squid, but about the claims made against him and what he could do to right what he still feels is a grievous wrong.

When someone got hold of him to say the mission was to go ahead, O'Shea didn't feel he could return home.

He enlisted the help of his friend from France, Severine Hannam, who collected the 200kg of giant squid from the AUT freezers and arranged for it to be brought to Japan. Now, even after finding the squid, he feels his time in New Zealand academia is over, his achievement somewhat undercut by events at home. "You sleep with a student, that's your career gone. And I slept with a student," O'Shea says. "I'm basically unemployable."

Pessimism aside, O'Shea believes there is still work to be done on giant squid, and he's keen to see it done in New Zealand. Scientists still don't know much about Architeuthis - for example, while both Kubodera and O'Shea have now seen the creature in the flesh, they still cannot agree on its habits or temperament - Kubodera believing it's an aggressive predator while O'Shea says it's a benign, feeble drifter.

Perhaps, he says, he will return to New Zealand to take up a role in conservation. The giant squid, he says, is really just a way into that dialogue.

"We use these animals as hooks; charismatic megafauna to engage the public and get them interested in conservation," he says.

"And it is one thing getting something on film and another altogether understanding what it does, how it functions, what its needs are in a healthy functioning system to ensure its longer-term viability as a species."


As the documentary on Architeuthis went to air, the scientists watched, hoping for good ratings.

O'Shea talks down the phone from France just days before a press conference about the trip in New York, defiant after a few red wines, excited about a new project.

He explains that, all going well, the team plans to reconvene later in the year and head to Antarctica on another mission - this time, in the hope of finding the colossal squid, perhaps even finding a juvenile to grow in a tank.

"Before, we've caught colossal [paralaval] but it wasn't our target species. If we were to target grown colossal I think it would be a cinch. Maybe we'll try a two-pronged approach," he says. "I don't think finding the adult will be difficult." A decision on funding will be made soon. Whatever the outcome, O'Shea says, he is looking forward to what happens next.

"The pressure is now off," he says, repeating his desire to reinvent himself, aged 47.

"Though I am sure there'll be a squid in the future somehow."

Sunday Star Times