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Treasure Coast scientist gains international attention for filming super rare giant squid

Posted at 4:51 AM, Jul 12, 2019

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FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- Very few people in the world can say they have taken a picture of a live giant squid in its natural habitat.

A local marine biologist can say that she’s done just that — twice.

The first time in Japan, and then this summer in United States waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The attention is shedding light on one of her other great missions: protecting paradise and the environment, especially in her own backyard.

“This is the one we saw,” said Dr. Edie Widder, pointing to video of a creature lurking across her computer screen.

Super rare creatures

Widder is taking measurements of something very few have ever seen alive.

“It’s very thrilling for people, I think, to see such an amazing, other worldly creature,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.

The Fort Pierce-based scientist runs the Ocean Research and Conservation Association (ORCA).

This summer, she’s putting the group on the map.

She helped capture video of a giant squid for the first time ever in U.S. waters deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

The first time a squid was filmed alive in it’s habitat was off the coast of Japan in 2012 — an experience that Dr. Widder helped bring to life with a team of scientists and something that brought her group international attention through Discovery Channel.

She even hosted a TED talk on the subject.

“Full grown giant squid can get as tall as a four story house,” she said. “They have eyes the size of your head.”

With very little known about the super rare creatures and an interest in them spanning the globe, Widder embarked on another mission this summer to study creatures of the deep and the vast oceans they call home. She wanted to learn more about how animals down there live in a world where there’s no sunlight.

“Which is a very, very unexplored portion of the planet,” said Widder. “There may be all kinds of amazing creatures down there, that we haven’t even discovered yet.”

Finding the squid

The NOAA-funded research exploration, which took place in June, used a special camera system she invented called Medusa. It was their fifth deployment of the system, which includes a special lure of sorts with flashing lights.

“I had developed something we call the electronic jellyfish that imitated certain displays and one of those displays happens to be very attractive to large squid,” said Dr. Widder. “It could just be thrown off the ship, it floats around whatever depth you have line at and you’ve got a float at the surface with a satellite beacon so you can pick it up later.”

At 2,500 the squid appeared. The scientists picked up the system on June 19 and one of those scientists, Nathan Robinson, started looking at the videos.

He saw a large animal that appeared to be hunting the electronic jelly fish and then enormous tentacles coming in to attack.

“He came into where I was sitting and his eyes were just about popping out of his head. I knew immediately it was something awesome,” said Dr. Widder. “Sure enough, it was a very, very large squid. But we wanted to be absolutely sure before we shared it with the world.”

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. A huge storm struck around the same time of the video discovery.

The group tried to contact a world expert on the giant squid at the Smithsonian, but the storm had knocked out the internet connection. Then the ship was struck by lightning.

“It was a huge boom. Ran out onto the fantail. There was a plume of yellow and brown smoke in their air, bits of antenna on the deck,” she said.

The video wasn’t back up yet. And some computers in the lab were damaged. The one with the squid discovery miraculously was untouched.

“It seemed like Poseidon didn’t want to give up his secrets,” joked Dr. Widder.

National outlets like CNN, Discovery Channel and National Geographic jumped on the story.

“It’s important that people recognize that, that we’ve got this incredible diversity, right in our own backyard. And unfortunately in the same place we have enormous amounts of oil rigs,” Dr. Widder said.

Bringing attention to ORCA

The attention from this giant squid this summer has allowed ORCA to bring more awareness to a greater purpose here at home.

“We see it in our own backyard in the Indian River Lagoon, this ecosystem is collapsing,” said Dr. Widder. “A lagoon like this is critical to the life-support of the ocean as a whole. I just felt like, we’re destroying the ocean before we even know what’s in it.”

ORCA is conducting research with the help of student interns this summer to better understand problems here like the blue green algae crisis.

Gillian Falls, a lab assistant at ORCA, is working with students on a special project right now.

“We’re testing grass that’s been treated with different types of fertilizers to see the effects of the fertilizers when the grass gets into either fresh water or salt water” she said. “The main issue is, there’s a lot of nutrients which are natural, but the rapid influx of them is causing the water to get a lot worse.”

Widder said they’re focusing on mapping pollution and finding solutions.

“Trying to develop science-based solutions to ocean conservation challenges,” she said.

Another group of college students is also conducting research is also testing different vegetables that are being sold in Martin County to see if there are any microcystins that is being accumulated in them.

High school intern Josh Watkins said this experience is preparing him for a potential future in science.

“I enjoy working on this type of stuff because I fish literally everyday. If the water is not healthy, then there’s not going to be any fish,” he said. “I think the harder we work, the more information we’ll find.”

Widder will also continue her work on the giant squid because all of these projects, go hand in hand.

“We’re using this discovery of the giant squid, which is thrilling in and of itself, to raise awareness about just how much there is out there that we have yet to explore,” she said. “How can we even begin to protect it if we don’t even know it’s there?”