I have to admit I had a bit of trepidation when QUEST set out to tell the story about Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas). The squid have aggressively expanded their territorial range from the warmer equatorial Pacific to waters off central California. These are not the little market squid you might be used to seeing. “Jumbo” squid can grow up to six feet long, have barbed tentacles and a powerful, razor-sharp parrot-like beak. They have also arrived with a somewhat nasty reputation. In Mexico, where they have the nickname “Diablos Rojos,” or “red devils,” there are stories of fishermen falling overboard and being pulled below, never to be seen again. But that’s not what made me nervous.
I get seasick.
Still, I love being out on the ocean and never turn down the chance to get out beyond the breakers. We set out on the charter fishing boat Huli Cat from Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay. The boat was aiming for an area the captain called the “Dover Grounds,” about 20 miles out to sea. On the way, we passed a migrating pod of Humpback whales, coming so close that we could smell their breath as they spouted. We passed through vast fields of pink jellyfish that covered the surface as far as the eye could see. We saw mola mola (or ocean sunfish) rising to the surface to be cleaned by waiting seagulls. As we got closer to our destination, a gang of playful porpoises caught up to the boat and began surfing the bow wave.
Just then, the boat’s radio cackled with Coast Guard chatter. A container ship had struck the Bay Bridge and was leaking vast amounts of oil into the San Francisco Bay. It seemed a world away and at that time we had no idea what kind of impact the oil spill would have on those very waters. The captain scanned the fish finder and we drifted to a stop. Fishermen began letting out their lines and a lone albatross landed off the stern. He looked at me in a curious way, maybe wondering why I appeared somewhat greener than the other people on the boat.
It was not long before the first Humboldt squid was pulling on a line. Soon all the anglers were straining at their reels. Fishing for Jumbo squid isn’t as much about finesse as it is about brute force. The rods seemed to be at the point of snapping and the angler’s arms burned as they reeled in Jumbo squid from 800 feet below.
So why are these animals arriving here in Northern California? And what impact does this “invasion” have on the fragile ocean ecosystem? As QUEST begins our second television season, we’ll join this trip and meet one of the foremost experts on Humboldt squid, Professor Bill Gilly from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. Tune in on Tuesday, April 1st, on our website or on KQED channel 9, to learn more about these amazing animals.