A Kolossal Endeavor- The Search for the Colossal Squid
By Myrah Graham
How do you find the largest invertebrate in the world? With a lot of patience, apparently. Over the month of March 2023, it quickly became evident that tracking the colossal squid would be like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Kolossal is the ocean exploration and conservation non-profit dreamed up by marine scientist Matthew Mulrennan. The goal is to film the colossal squid in its natural habitat for the first time in history. Known to inhabit deep Antarctic waters, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni is a predator we know little about. This mystery is a rarity in this day and age, especially for an animal estimated to be up to 12 meters long and 1650lbs.
Somehow, achieving this goal meant recruiting two students from the Marine Institute of Newfoundland. Luckily for Jenny and I, this meant flying to Argentina to hop aboard the Ocean Endeavor, a tourist expedition vessel operated by Intrepid Travel.
Our role as research assistants consisted of deploying and operating the SubC camera rig prototyped for this mission. Having both previously operated these cameras at the opposite pole for our own theses, the work felt familiar yet exciting. What would we find? (Spoiler alert: Not the Colossal Squid).
What we did find were a multitude of resilient and resourceful benthic animals, some of which are estimated to be thousands of years old. As much as penguins, seals and whales are celebrated, their existence is largely due to these weird and wonderful creatures that cover the seafloor and breathe life into the water column. As an under-studied portion of the world, the benthic landscape in the Southern Ocean represents a new frontier in ocean science and hopefully conservation.
Over the course of 21 days, 15 deployments were made representing over 20 hours of footage. This meant hours of downloading underwater footage, and then combing through on our respective laptops to annotate any observations of note. Every day, guests were curious to peek over our shoulders and witness these first images of the Antarctic seafloor. The enthusiasm for science on board permeated the daily schedule of citizen science activities as well as lectures on marine and land life. From bird surveys to lectures on sustainability, taking part in research aboard a leisure vessel was surprisingly symbiotic.
Our work would have been impossible without the incredible help of the Ocean Endeavor staff, bridge team, expedition guides and encouraging guests. From deployment logistics to insightful questions, it was a unique field experience in that we were doing fieldwork, outreach, and analysis all at once. Despite not capturing the colossal squid on camera this time, the insights gained on this expedition will surely lead to bigger and better methods for next year’s season.
Meanwhile, there is much to do. With conservation center-of-mind, the data analysis will go towards identifying Vulnerable Marine Environments (VMEs) on the seafloor in partnership with international Antarctic regulating and research bodies such as IAATO and CCAMLR. By continuing seafloor imaging efforts, more of the Antarctic seabed can be mapped and lead to new species discoveries, population ranges and ecological observations. All would go towards making the case for expanding Marine Reserves around the White Continent. A project of such proportions could only be carried on the back of a colossal squid, the elusive mascot and driving the impetus of Kolossal.