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January 26, 2013

Slate: The giant squid stalker

Deep-sea biologist Edith Widder was working on a ship positioned off Japan's Ogasawara Islands when Wen-Sung Chung asked her to step into the lab to see something. Cameras followed her as she got up. This was not unusual, since the Japan Broadcasting Commission (NHK) and the Discovery Channel were funding the expedition, which was being conducted from a research yacht named Alucia leased from a billionaire hedge fund owner. Chung was nonchalant, so it didn't occur to Widder that she was about to see the culmination of a quest that has driven ocean explorers for more than a century. She thought maybe it was going to be video of a cool shark.

The purpose of the expedition was to capture footage of the enigmatic giant squid in its natural habitat. The animal can grow to 35 feet or longer, and its eye is as big as your head. But it lives about 1,000 feet below the surface and deeper, and it had only been glimpsed a few times at the surface and photographed alive once.

Widder is a world expert on bioluminescence, the light that countless marine animals use to communicate, especially in the dark world of the deep sea. For years she's been studying how the deep's bizarre inhabitants use the light. Some animals use it to lure a mate, others a meal. And she suspects that certain jellyfish pulse with bioluminescence when they are getting attacked. It's a last-ditch attempt that works sort of like a burglar alarm to bring in something even bigger to attack the attacker.

Widder has spent months of her life underwater, at times piloting submersibles. For years, she has argued that scientists were getting at best a tilted view of the wonders of the deep sea. By going down with robotic vehicles or in submersibles with lights blazing, she and others have reasoned, they were scaring lots of good stuff away. Deep-sea animals barely see any light, so a typical submersible dive is the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience. Everything bolts.

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