Why you should care

Because from Homer’s Odyssey to Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, giant squid have always captured our imagination.

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With a scalpel held steadily in his glove-covered right hand, Angel Guerra carved a long, thin incision part way down a 17-foot, 130-pound baby Architeuthis dux — aka a giant squid, and the biggest invertebrate in the world. Known to be as long as 72 feet and as heavy as 350 pounds, with dinner plate-sized eyes, only around 1,000 confirmed specimens have been collected (all dead or dying) in the past 500 years. Which is why we were, well, freaking out as Guerra, a marine biologist and one of the few global experts on these massive sea creatures, dissected one specially for OZY.

This coral white, massively tentacled girl — with a violet beak — was found floating dead in October a couple of miles from the northern coast of Spain in the Bay of Biscay, which just so happens to have three of the most life-rich deep-sea canyons in the world. It’s down at those kinds of depths where ancient human curiosity about these swimmers and the building blocks for tomorrow’s big research breakthroughs intersect. Like how can the giant squid’s eye see where there’s no light? And how does it use stem cells to regenerate arms or tentacles that whales bite off?

Call it squid appeal. Or just plain strange. But some scientists think the deep blue sea now needs its own mascot, and our fantastically freaky friend might be the ideal candidate. Guerra’s already lobbied the World Wide Fund for Nature to name the giant squid a “flagship” species — like the giant panda on land — and some experts say it’s the best representation of the few deep-sea canyons in the world, which could help raise awareness about dangers such as seismic-survey oil exploration and, of course, funding to help preserve these hidden treasures. “It would be a wonderful organism for the job, sort of like a Smokey the Bear for the deep sea,” says Clyde Roper, zoologist emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and a giant squid expert. “These canyons … serve as a holding place, a refuge of deep sea species.”

These experts point to other wonders of the squid: They have a fast-growth hormone that could open up new avenues of research to, say, speed up fish farming. Some companies, including Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, are already using synthetic hormones to do just that. “Giants squids have what I call the Alexander the Great strategy,” says Guerra. “They live gloriously and die young.” They also use an ammonium-chloride solution (yes, which basically comes from urine) in their bodies that allows them to float and withstand variable pressure from the surface to 10,000 feet. Research is now underway to build a new soft-submarine, modeled on the giant squid, using synthetic ammonium-based flexible material that could one day make it easier to travel the deep seas.

An illustration of a doctor cutting into a giant squid.

Architeuthis dux, aka the giant squid, is the biggest invertebrate in the world.

Source Allen Passalaqua for OZY

Then there’s the giant squid’s squishy little sibling. The small bigfin squid has 20-meter arms that are believed to use some sort of miraculous glue to catch their prey. Other deep sea octopi and squid are able to camouflage unlike any other animal, and some have bioluminous ink. In fact, certain ink contains amino acids that are natural sedatives or believed to numb their predator’s nervous system. No wonder biotech businesses like Genzyme as well as Merck, Pfizer and others in the $300 billion global pharmaceutical industry are involved in underwater research, trying to harvest the medicines of tomorrow that might cure infections or even cancer.

Sure, the supersize squid’s not exactly cuddly like a panda, the WWF’s pick to represent land-endangered species. Nor does Mr. Tentacles meet one of the prerequisite criteria of being endangered or available to exhibit live in aquariums. And getting mainstream, mascot status would require consensus among marine biologists; Guerra anticipates years of debate there. So here’s another idea he’s toying with: finding a well-known name like, say, a major California aquarium to sponsor the creature, along with other organizations in the U.S. and Spain. Guerra says it’s not like he’s proposing that plush squid symbolize protection over the entire sea — or even all canyons, for that matter. Just a limited few. (He estimates there are around a dozen critical deep-sea canyons like one in Monterey, California, a couple in Spain’s Bay of Biscay and some off the coasts of Japan, New Zealand, Namibia and Canada’s Newfoundland.)

People don’t care if the endgame is to protect an ecosystem. They just want the monster.

Fernando González Sitges, Spanish biologist and documentary filmmaker

It’s hard for the public to cherish what it can’t see, though, or what it might be petrified swimming next to. Only once, by pure chance, has a giant squid been caught on live camera — two years ago, when Guerra’s buddy Tsunemi Kubodera led a Japanese-American team and captured a two-minute clip of footage that went viral.

Yet Guerra, who’s already dedicated 40 years of his life to this ecosystem, hasn’t given up. He’s putting together a new, yet-to-be-funded exploratory mission tentatively dubbed Kraken Canarias. Planned for the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Africa, Guerra seeks to explore different species around volcanic formations that are an uncharted haven of the giant squid — or so he believes, because of the location’s abundance of sperm whale, which feed on the leggy cephalopods.

If successful, the excursion could reenergize the scientific community, and the general public, to rally around Guerra’s beloved sea creatures and protect deep-water canyons. “As soon as you mention the giant squid, the entire world pays attention,” says Fernando González Sitges, a Spanish biologist and documentary filmmaker who’s failed to film the legendary kraken but has teamed up with Guerra for the Kraken Canarias mission. “People don’t care if the endgame is to protect an ecosystem,” he adds. “They just want the monster.”

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