"Man-Eating Squid" Are Actually Timid and Non-Threatening

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Recently you might have heard about “giant man-eating squid” that are supposedly terrorizing divers in Southern California. Wire reports like the below made the Internet rounds.

Now comes this news from the University of Rhode Island:

<<International

news reports last week about scuba divers off San Diego being menaced

by large numbers of Humboldt’s or jumbo squid have raised the ire of

University of Rhode Island biologist Brad Seibel.  As a leading expert

on the species who has dived with them several times, he calls the

reports “alarmist” and says the squid’s man-eating reputation is

seriously overblown.

            For years Seibel has heard stories claiming that Humboldt

squid will devour a dog in minutes and could kill or maim unsuspecting

divers.

            “Private dive companies in Mexico play up this myth by

insisting that their customers wear body armor or dive in cages while

diving in waters where the squid are found.  Many also encourage the

squid’s aggressive behavior by chumming the waters.  I didn’t believe

the hype, but there was still some doubt in my mind, so I was a little

nervous getting into the water with them for the first time,” Seibel

said.

            Scuba diving at night in the surface waters of the Gulf of

California in 2007, Seibel scanned the depths with his flashlight and

saw the shadows of Humboldt squid far in the distance.   After he got

up his nerve, he turned off the light.  When he turned it back on again

30 seconds later, he was surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of the

squid, many just five or six feet away from him.  Most were in the 3-4

foot size range, while larger ones were sometimes visible in deeper

waters.  But the light appeared to frighten them, and they immediately

dashed off to the periphery.

            The URI researcher’s dive was more than just a personal

test.  It was part of a scientific examination of the species some call

“red devil” to learn more about their physiology, feeding behavior and

swimming abilities.

            Humboldt squid feed in surface waters at night, then

retreat to great depths during daylight hours. “They spend the day 300

meters deep where oxygen levels are very low,” Seibel said.  “We wanted

to know how they deal with so little oxygen.”

            Seibel said that while the squid are strong swimmers with a

parrot-like beak that could inflict injury, man-eaters they are not.

 Unlike some large sharks that feed on large fish and marine mammals,

jumbo squid use their numerous small, toothed suckers on their arms and

tentacles to feed on small fish and plankton that are no more than a

few centimeters in length.

            The highlight of Seibel’s research cruise with colleagues

from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute was diving with the

impressive animals.  Other divers participating were Lloyd Trueblood of

URI, Steve Haddock of MBARI, and Alison Sweeney of the University of

California, Santa Barbara.

            Seibel was surprised by the large number of squid he

encountered, which made it easy to imagine how they could be

potentially dangerous to anything swimming with them.  Their large

numbers also made Seibel somewhat pleased that they appeared frightened

of his dive light.  Yet he said the animals were also curious about

other lights, like reflections off his metal equipment or a

glow-in-the-dark tool that one squid briefly attacked.

            “Based on the stories I had heard, I was expecting them to

be very aggressive, so I was surprised at how timid they were. As soon

as we turned on the lights, they were gone,” he said.  “I didn’t get

the sense that they saw the entire diver as a food item, but they were

definitely going after pieces of our equipment.”

            According to Seibel, there have been many active

discussions among biologists and the dive community about the safety of

diving with Humboldt squid.  As a result of his experience, the URI

scientist is preparing a formal report with his recommendations for

safely diving with the squid, including suggestions to always carry a

back-up dive light and to be tethered to a boat. Any time humans enter

the habitat of a large animal, there is potential for dangerous

interactions, he said, so divers should use caution.

            “However, I want to spread the word that they aren’t the

aggressive man-eaters as they have been portrayed,” Seibel said.>>

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