Friday, April 19, 2024

Dancing with Demons – The Giant Humboldt Squid


The arid peninsula of Baja California has only known man for a brief tick of the Earth’s vast lifetime clock. Looking upon the harsh landscape of sharp-steep Mountains, ancient lava flows, sparse freshwater, and blowing burning sands, it was not meant for man. Only within the last millennia has man developed rudimentary technologies that facilitate his fragile presence there. The Sea Of Cortez is the lair of diverse and incredible creatures; some so great, so powerful, so lethal, they have spawned legends. Some have even been called demons.

Adrift Again

Huge clouds full of blue and silver are streaked with yellow and pink as the sun dances fire red rays along the entire western skyline. A sunset that dreams are made of shocked the sky in silent testimony of the magnificence of this place. Once again, I am adrift on the desert sea….

The sea was calm and the air was warm. The sound of water tickling the hull of the Panga was calming yet playful. This afternoon and evening would expose me to an event that would change my life and I somehow knew it. The feeling of anticipation like waiting to open Christmas presents began to grip my heart. I know I must have been smiling to myself because the Pangaderos was smiling at me. Mind you, when I gear up to dive with Humboldt squid (Dosidicus Gigas) alone, the Pangaderos normally look at me with fear and concern. Several Pangaderos have told me I will not survive the dive. “Nice…”

But, at that moment, a memory of a wonder swept over me. It was the memory of when I first heard the legend of these magnificent squids. A legend based on a story that would change the course of my life; a story that haunts me to this very day.

The Legend

About 10 years ago, I was filming gray whales at San Ignacio Lagoon. Windy beaches with a desolate air of magic and mystery. Around a fire ring, I overheard two older Mexican fishermen talking about ‘calamar gigante.’

Giant Humboldt Squid
Giant Humboldt Squid

The following is the story just as it was told to me that incredible night.

Legend Of The Diablo Rojo (Red Demon/Devil)

“It was a clear starry night in October years ago. My father and I were fishing for calamar gigante. The squid was unusually large this night, nearly as big as a man. My father said we must be careful of the Diablo Rojo this night. These are the giant squid, the Demons. When the squid reaches this size, they are no longer just squid, but become demons… killers of men.”

After some time of fishing, we had many big squids in our boat and started back for land. As we began our journey home I saw a Panga ahead so we went to see who it was. As we neared the Panga I noticed no one was on board and it was adrift. Concerned, we pulled alongside to find out who’s Panga was. I boarded the drifting Panga and found it was nearly full of still dying calamar. It was then I noticed something strange on the side of the boat. As I looked closer, I noticed human fingernails were embedded into the wooden edge of the side rail. Traces of blood outlined a man’s handprint. The terror of what happened hit me.

This fisherman was pulling up a large calamar, but there was a large demon feeding on it. You see, they are fierce and they even eat each other when caught. When the fisherman reached into the water to pull it in, the Diablo Rojo grabbed him and pulled him into the water. Somehow the man grabbed onto his boat. He tried to get back in, but the Red Demon attacked him and began eating him alive. The man held on for a long time during the struggle before he was finally ripped off and dragged into the deep. He was devoured alive by the Red Demon. He was my father’s lifelong friend.”

The Demon, Itself

After spending more time in the water with Giant Humboldt squid than anyone else in the world, (over 300 dives), I have come to know them in ways I never expected, as individuals. Although I have probably not seen the same animal twice on more than one dive, they are in fact personable, each having unique traits.

When I see Dosidicus gigas come into view, I have the same rush of impressions, every time. Speed. Grace. Lethality. Intelligence. Mortality.

Their eyes draw your attention quickly. They look at you. Understand, they look at YOU. They follow your every movement, studying you in an effort to catalog you either as prey or threat. However, the stare seems even more intense than that. I have long felt they look at you with true curiosity. They seem to wonder what you actually are.

Giant Humboldt Squid
Giant Humboldt Squid

The beak of a Dosidicus gigas is large and very powerful. The edges are as sharp as trauma shears and are capable of gouging out an orange-sized chunk of flesh, regardless of tissue makeup. I have seen a five-foot Dosidicus gigas bite through the thick bone of a tuna head, skull and all, with minimal effort removing fist-sized portions with each bite.

To hold their prey item firmly, this squid has about 2,000 suction disks; each lined with chitinous ring teeth. Chitin is a material similar to that of fingernails and that of beetle exoskeletons (A polysaccharide). These chitinous ring teeth are needle-sharp and very effective. Every suction disk has up to 36 of these teeth. That means a Humboldt squid employs as many as 72,000 teeth upon its hapless victims. Prey has little chance of escaping a Humboldt squid’s deadly embrace.

What is probably the most visually striking characteristic of the Dosidicus gigas are the chromatophores. These skin cells are transparent when contracted, allowing the bright white muscle tissue below to be clearly seen. When these cells are spread open, their deep red pigmentation completely covers the white muscle. Incredibly, each chromatophore is linked directly to the brain by the largest axons in the animal kingdom. That means Dosidicus gigas can ‘think’ his color and pattern change instantly. Their ability to change color from bright white to deep red can happen in one frame of film. That is 1 / 30th of a second!

Most engrossing, however, is the complexity of the patterns, speed of change, and densities of color saturation. It is so complex it has been called a ‘language’. Although I do not completely subscribe to the idea of Dosidicus gigas has the intellect for a true language, it is clearly a complex communication. After all, it is thought that Dosidicus gigas only live for 400 to 500 days. That means that these magnificent animals, in just 1 ½ years, begin life as plankton (the size of a sesame seed), and grow to a full size of more than eight feet long! With such an enormous growth rate, it is easy to see why they are so aggressive to feed. And aggressive they are.

Aggressive… Yet smart.

The Descent

“LISTO!” I tell my two friendly Pangaderos as I prepare to roll into the water. Tossing my 10-pound weight over the side attached to a yellow nylon “down line” signals I am seconds away from entering the sea. Looking more like a spaceman than a SCUBA diver, I wear full coverage composite body panels with chain mail gloves, knees, and elbows made by my friend, Jeremiah Sullivan. A 250-foot long stainless steel cable is tightly rigged to my safety harness and the boat. On my back is the PRISM closed-circuit rebreather capable of allowing my dive to exceed 5 hours at any depth, in my hands is a broadcast video camcorder, HID lights, and lures (to attract passing squid into the frame). Stage bottles are hung over the side at three levels in the water column in the event my CCR has any problems. Two bottles of breathing gas are strapped onto my CCR harness to help me reach the stage bottles in the event they are needed. If this gear sounds kinda excessive, believe me, it isn’t.

I roll off the side of the tiny boat and softly hit the water with the most familiar of feelings. Warm water enters my suit with the occasional sting of tiny plankton jellies. “Good to be back home”, I thought.

The surface water is bright and blue, but below it appears black. On the shore is a mountain ridge just five miles away, creating a vast shadow onto and below the sea surface. The shadow blocks the sub-sea afternoon sunlight. Beyond that, pitch blackness… and demons.

I pass through the giant mountain shadow at 45 feet on my descent to 250 feet. It is like passing through the night terminator in spaceflight. The world seems to change and you feel very alone. Occasionally, I see Humboldt squid around me streaking by just on the edge of visibility. Although I cannot make them out clearly, I know what they are from experience. The five-foot squid creates green-blue “tubes” of light as they disturb the bioluminescent plankton algae. The light tubes are wonders to behold. As I descend holding my down line past 80ft I can see what looks like the bottom of the sea coming up to meet me. It is a thick cloud of red-green plankton and my down line seems to just end at its edge. I transition to a foot-down posture as my fins enter the cloud. Just as my chest enters the cloud, I see a huge squid head rise out of the gloom just feet away. He flashes from white to dark red creating the eerie image of an undersea lightning storm. My memory of reading “The Hounds of Baskerville” enters my mind. As my head enters the cloud, all goes dark. I can see my fingertips, but not much further. My body is tense from what I just saw, and I wonder what such a huge squid would do to me if it had the chance. It is times like this I wonder, “Why am I doing this?”

My descent continues and I turn on my halogen ‘descent light’. The light reflects on the plankton so intensely that I am reminded of driving a car in a blizzard with the bright lights on.“Better with the lights off” I surmise and turn it off. Again, all goes dark.

As I peer into the darkness, it suddenly appears different as I pass through the plankton cloud. The darkness has given way to a “black sky full of stars”. The water is black, but clear with perhaps 65 ft of visibility and I am surrounded by bioluminescent jellies. I have entered eternal darkness at 200 ft and continue “falling”. A few moments later my cable pulls tight arresting my fall. I am dangling alone at 250 ft deep in the darkness. I turn on my HID lights and power up my camera. I know they are close now.

What I saw next haunts me still. A large trail of bubbles originating from an unseen animal far below runs directly at me. I watch the bubble trail approach me then pass right through me eventually tracking into the distance behind me. A tinge of fear ran through my spine in a primeval flight response. “What the hell WAS that?” I thought. Humpback whales produce bubble streams effectively corralling herring into tight balls so they can feed on them and this looked just like it. My eyes strain to see the end of my lights, hoping to get a glimpse of the creature. I never did. A Sperm whale? A Pilot whale? Psuedorca? “God, please don’t let it be a Pseudorca!” I worried. That is the only animal here I would truly fear. They are suspect of at least one diver’s death here in the Sea Of Cortez, this Sea of Demons.

Demons in Hell

Deep in my mind are images and sounds I will never forget although, some I wish I could. Sounds of warfare, gunfire, the smell of blood, burned hair, and gunpowder. Cries for help. The terrible silence of death. Things I wish no person to ever hear or see. However, on that list of terrifying images and sounds, are some I wish more people could see. Those of Humboldt squid feeding. Violent images of death to further life.

The Humboldt Squid
The Humboldt Squid

Even though the squid makes no known sounds intentionally (for communication), they do make some. Their chitinous ring teeth grate on my camera housing and body armor when they attack, sounding a bit like a dog’s toenails on a tile floor. The most incredible sound they make is when they attack and feed on flesh.

Thousands of ring teeth cut into the flesh of their prey so deeply, you can hear it. When they drag their victim away with pulses from their massive jet funnel, the sounds of their hapless victim being ripped apart fill the water. It sounds a bit like heavy-duty Velcro® being pulled apart underwater. Then the beak can be heard, that huge knife-edged beak. The gouging of bone and tissue sounds like the shredding of cabbage combined with that of hacking apart coconuts with a machete. It is unmistakable.

The Demon.  The Beauty

I lift my lights from the disappearing bubble stream and scan the edge of visibility for signs of Humboldt squid or God forbid, a giant psuedorca. Dangling from the cable, I remain almost motionless, searching for shadows or bioluminescent tubes; telltale signs. Suddenly, about thirty, small (four foot) squid break into view directly in front of me, jetting by at incredible speeds right past me just inches away, then disappear into the blackness behind me. “SHOOT! What the hell made them do that?” My heart pounds as I frantically search for a mega predator to emerge from the black curtain around me. Tense seconds go by, and nothing. My head pivots in every direction as I try to pierce the water with my limited vision. Still nothing! Then my subconscious kicks in and I realize I just saw a huge shape sitting motionless, BEHIND me.

I spin around and find myself face to face with the Diablo Rojo. The first real giant I have ever seen. As my brain processed the image, my instincts kicked in flooding me with emotions. Seconds seem like ages and I found my body immobile, tense with no breathing. I was fascinated, happy, terrified, and helpless.“Cooooool!”

The monstrous squid remains motionless just ten feet away. Emotions gave way to cognitive thought and I trained my camcorder on him and begin to record. Almost on cue, he begins his approach. Then, with blinding acceleration, he lurches onto me with a powerful thud crackle”. He slams into my chest. The impact was incredibly powerful, knocking the wind out of me. His huge arms envelop my complete upper body and camera and I can feel my chest plate move as his beak grinds against it. The crackle and scratching of thousands of chitinous ring teeth against my fiberglass/kevlar chest plate are unmistakable. He withdraws back into camera range and his huge eyes begin to survey me for damage or weakness. Behind him, I can see dozens of man-sized squid waiting to come at me but they don’t. Is it because he is so much larger? Is he the alpha dominant? He certainly had my full attention.

It was then that I noticed his condition. His massive body was a map of pain and experiences. Scars covered his right side and most of his left tentacle was missing, possibly from being jigged by a Pangadero or a lucky bite by a female he mated with. Due to his body marks, I called him ‘Scar’.

Scar is over seven feet in length, larger than anyone has ever proven. His body was 3 feet thick (He’s too big to put my arms around him) and I estimated his weight between 230 to 250 pounds. He could easily kill me if he grabbed me and just started a series of exploratory bites to find my weakness, but he doesn’t. To my surprise, he doesn’t leave either. He swims slowly around me in a circle, keeping close enough to touch during the entire circumference. Although his closeness was a bit unnerving, I find him fascinating. For the first time, a giant Humboldt squid paused to explore me instead of trying to feed on me, then leave. I reach out my hand to him and I could see his huge eye focus on it. He stops and slowly turns toward my hand and eases closer to it. He began color flashing, which was the most intense and dramatic I have ever seen. His color patterns move from tail to arm tips with waves of red and white resembling ripples from a pebble dropped into water. He reached out his right outer arm to touch my hand. Inches away, we both paused, staring at each other. “What will the other do?” We both seem to be testing the other.

The Fine Line Between Heaven and Hell

During a recent National Geographic expedition, a well-known scientist wrote that since he snorkeled with these squids once and wasn’t attacked or injured he proclaimed that their reputation as man-eaters was untrue. What he didn’t mention from this limited experience was that the animals he observed in situ were only three and four-footers and that they were passing by, and not in their classic feeding mode. Mind you, I am not discounting his scientific observations or his experience. My point is much simpler than that. After all, animals this size are still prey for elephant seals. For example, if you hear legends that lions have occasionally killed and fed on humans; expose your test to adult lions. I have yet to hear of anyone killed and eaten by a lion cub.

In August of 2003, a huge English production company hired me to help them film Humboldt squid. The producer decided to follow the direction of an English female sport diver/ co-presenter rather than me since after all, she was the co-producer. During one dive at night, this woman told her producer to jig and slaughtered over thirty of these magnificent and intelligent creatures in a futile attempt to get the squid to enter into a cannibalistic feeding frenzy for their cameraman. I was horrified at the murders and all I could do is witness the rain of body parts drift by me underwater only to disappear into the dark sea. To make the event worse, when I was on deck later, the producer cut the eyes out of a still-living squid and placed them in a dive mask, which was placed on his face… for a prize photo. My complaints got me thrown off the boat. A wave of nausea passes over me when I realize they were there filming for thirty days and I can’t help but feel sick at the idea of how many animals they killed to make their documentary. Arrogance, ignorance, and ego. A destructive yet all-too-common combination.

When this English production company has the audacity to claim they “harmed no animals in the production of this documentary” I somehow doubt that was accurate, to put it lightly.

The Dance

My hand is outstretched to a true Diablo Rojo. My heart is pounding. Had this giant ever seen a man before? What does he want to know? Why isn’t he attacking me repeatedly like others before him? For twelve incredible minutes, we circle, reach out, withdraw, touch, and test each other. His color flashes are never the same twice and he shows no fear of me. By this time I am being surrounded by up to 100 very large Humboldt squid, but they all stay away. Scar seems interested in my camera housing so I show it to him. He comes up and spreads his arms completely over it and bites the lens, making for a nice shot of his beak and radula (a spike-covered tongue) in action. Scar is so huge his arms engulf the entire camera housing and reaches beyond it to lays upon my hands, forearms, and head. Scar tenses his whole body instantly as he detects the difference between the housing and me. A second later he withdraws and stops cold. His eye stares at my forearm and camera housing as if he realizes the difference for the first time. He flashes a unique pattern I have come to know. He flushes deep red then blanched bright white and stays that way for several seconds. The blanched white pattern has preceded many a retreat after attacks on me. What does this revelation mean to Scar? Whatever the reason for his blanched white reaction, his behavior changed. He begins a more purposeful series of circling and touching. Touching my arms, CCR cover, legs, fins (which he bites), and finally, my face.

It occurs to me that this might well be the first encounter of its kind for both species. I can only describe it as a dance. Dance of peace, curiosity, and discovery.

Scar and I have just completed a dance of such beauty that my words fall far short of explaining it. Two intelligent beings from entirely different worlds, separated by extremes of morphology, behavior, space, and time.

Suddenly Scars behavior changes again. His color pattern changes to a fixed white ventral and dark dorsal with the occasional ‘flicker’ across the top of his head and he stops circling me. He hovers just feet away and his eyes begin to search our surroundings. He points his massive body away from me and downward. He looks at me one last time and with a blast of his siphon funnel, he jets into the depths with a startling acceleration rate. His massive size glides almost effortlessly in a half spiral, his huge black eyes fixed in a backward scan. As Scar departs into the depths, I realize how privileged I was to have been a part of this dance. I wonder what incredible creatures and events those eyes see every day. What images he might see today? Prey fish, maybe an even bigger squid, killer whales, and sperm whales. Perhaps species are unseen by man. Then it hit me. This magnificent animal is prey to the great whales, as well as man.

A sudden concern fills me as I remember the bubble trail. I remember the year-earlier watching hundreds of these animals beaching themselves in a crazed effort to avoid two pilot whales on the hunt. These magnificent squid balance a fine line between heaven and hell.

I stare at where Scar faded into time and space and thought; “God speed Scar. Thank you and good luck my new friend.”

A Price Exacted

My mind was with Scar when I notice something moving in my peripheral vision. Just then, BAM! I get slammed by a six-foot squid on my chest under my arm and feel another envelop my wrist and begin to bite me. As I begin to fight them off my chest and arm, another one grabs my fin and tugged me hard. The instant I “encourage” one animal to release me (with a hit with my camera housing), another moves in and attacks. My peaceful dive is turning into a barroom brawl. The lights mounted to my camera platform violently shake and flail without direction, creating a chaotic strobe effect adding to the intensity of the events. Dozens of attacks follow, each making the tell-tale sounds of impact and chitinous ring teeth “scratching” on my armor and camera housing all recorded by my camcorder. My strength starts to fade and the aggression increases by the second. These guys are very big, so I decide to end the dive.

As I enter the plankton cloud overhead the attacks lessen. The fact that the Humboldt squid is a visual predator can be a good thing in low vis! “HA! Can’t see me-cant get me!” I think to myself, realizing I have pain in my chest and wrist. Upon examination, blood leaks from my wetsuit, covering my wrist. The squid bit me through the chain mail between the fiberglass panels. Even though his beak couldn’t actually cut me, it was able to engulf half my wrist in its huge beak and crush-pinch the tissue like a vice.

The meeting of a lifetime that just occurred was not free. I obviously had to pay the toll.

But at 200 feet deep, I’m not safe yet.

Light and Darkness

After a slow ascent through the cloud, I enter clear water again but no light. The sun has gone down. As I reach my first decompression stop I enter a huge school of sardines, so I turn my lights off to watch the show. In the dark, I can see each tiny fish create its own tube of blue-green bioluminescence as it moves through the water. The mass of sardines generates a cloud of light like nothing I have ever seen. My visibility range is about a quarter that of a football field and it is full of this light cloud. Streaks of light follow each fish in pulses of blue-green, making complex patterns of unified beauty.

Only moments have passed when yet another life-and-death struggle ensues. The giant illuminated cloud of sardines is being stalked by a shoal of Humboldt squid. I can see the shoal rise from the deep. Making large disturbances of bioluminescence themselves, the squid is illuminated enough to clearly make out chromatophore changes. In the dim bio light, their colors look different. Red is pitch black and white is the blue-green of the bio light. Visions from another world.

The great cephalopods charge into the school with precision and speed that no schooling fish could hope to escape. “Are these the same animals I just escaped from?” I wondered. “Did they follow me?” Again the squid’s behavior is completely different. Now they patrol the perimeter of the massive school of sardines now pulling tighter in defense. Suddenly, at the exact same instant, several squid snap into stunning acceleration directly into the cloud and out of my sight. Each acceleration creates a light tube that was far brighter than the tiny sardines could stimulate. Seconds later the squid emerge with their arms fat with sardines, and hover around the perimeter, eating their entrapped prey. They completely ignore me except for the occasional slow pass.

Scientifically, this event is an autotrophic demonstration unlike any I have witnessed. Phytoplanktons utilize the nutrients in the water and harness the sun’s energy, zooplanktons consume them; sardines prey on zooplankton, and the Humboldt squid prey on the sardines. A path of energy transferred from one life form to another.

Spiritually, what I saw was a performance of life art. The precious gift of life, taken by others for their own continuance. Stunning beauty, color, power, and grace. An ancient dance of life and death to an ancient and otherworldly tempo, inaudible to human ears.

This experience was truly a gift with a price. A price I will gladly pay again.

See more of Scott Cassell and his incredible ventures on this website and experience this adventure in Baja California through their website

The Giant Squid - Featuring Scott Cassell
Scott Cassell
Scott Cassell
Scott Cassell is an American explorer, underwater filmmaker and counter-terrorism operative. His documentary credits include over thirty-five programs for the Disney Channel, MTV (Wildboyz), Spike TV, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, the Space Channel, the BBC and the History Channel. He has over 13,000 hours as a diver, and is a United States Coast Guard-qualified submersible pilot, with over 900 dives in the SeaMagine SeaMobile submersible. He holds the world record for longest distance traveled by a diver (52 miles in 9.5 hours).


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