Saturday, July 18, 2009

Humboldt Squid, Jumbo Hype

If you haven't already, check out the video Trouble in Paradise. I'll wait.

Okay? Now. Take a deep breath and calm down.

video is a beautifully filmed and narrated work of fiction. Inspired by
real events, but fiction nonetheless. Yes, there are Humboldt squid in
the waters and beaches of La Jolla. But is it true that "an undersea
earthquake has driven these predators close to the shore"? No. Is it likely that local marine creatures "sense an alien presence"--other than divers shining lights in their nocturnal faces? Probably not. And the most important question of all . . .


pretty sure there are still octopuses, horn sharks, and divers in the
water, along with the squid, so it would appear that the answer is a
dull and unequivocal yes.

Humboldt (a.k.a. jumbo, but not
giant) squid have been swimming in California waters and washing up on
Southern California beaches every summer for years. The biggest
stranding events were in 2002 and 2005 and received abundant media
coverage, but minor strandings in the intervening years passed pretty
much under the radar. This summer's stranding has (so far) been one of
the more modest. So why all the fanfare?

I don't know for sure,
any more than I know for sure why the squid stranded in the first
place, but here's a plausible scenario. Several squid strand during the
week, but not many people notice or think much of it. Come Saturday
morning, not only is it the beginning of the weekend, but an earthquake
has just jostled people out of bed, so now there are more people on the
beach and they're more alert. They notice the squid, and with the
earthquake fresh in their minds, they connect the two. The media jump
on it. What a great headline!

the time some responsible reporters decide to interview scientists, the
quake has been inextricably tied to the squid. The actual content of
the story is now debunking the connection, but the headline still reads Humboldt Squid Wash Ashore in La Jolla After Quake.
Even National Geographic asks: Dozens of Jumbo Squid Beached After Quake--Coincidence? Please, Natty Geo, don't make it a question. It is an answer. Coincidence!

people are excited about squid, and some recreational divers decide to
hang out with them in the water, rather than on the beach. Humboldt
squid are active, inquisitive sorts, and sure, sometimes they can be a
little grabby. BAM! Now we have a whole new sensational angle on the story.
The Associated Press article many news outlets are using is called Jumbo Squid Invade San Diego Shores, Spook Divers and I just can't resist peering through a few scientific holes:

- Folks always want to describe the Humboldt squid beak as "razor-sharp." I really wish they wouldn't. For one thing, it is a classic
cliché, and for another, it's plain wrong. Just from handling them,
it's quite easy to cut oneself on razors and nearly impossible to cut
oneself on squid beaks. Certainly, the squid could break your skin with
its beak if it chose to bite--but so could a human with its teeth, and
no one ever calls human teeth "razor-sharp."

- It's misleading to describe Humboldt squid as "deep-sea giants"
and imply they're not usually seen near the surface. Their natural
habit, in both Mexico and California, is to migrate daily between
surface and deep waters--most likely following their prey.

Speaking of clichés, I know I start to sound like a broken record, but
really, I have never heard anyone in Mexico refer to the Humboldt squid
as diablo rojo (red devil). It's just calamar gigante. Boring but true!

"Roger Uzun, a veteran scuba diver and amateur underwater videographer,
swam with a swarm of the creatures for about 20 minutes and said they
appeared more curious than aggressive. The animals taste with their tentacles,
he said, and seemed to be touching him and his wet suit to determine if
he was edible." Emphasis mine, because I don't know of any evidence
that squid get chemosensory input (smell or taste) from their arms or
tentacles. Go ahead and quote him saying he thinks they're more curious
than aggressive, but not that they taste with their tentacles. The
first statement is a valid personal impression, the second is
scientific misinformation. Remember, this guy is a diver, not a
biologist. In fact, he's the one who made that gorgeous (but
fictitious) Trouble in Paradise video.

Now that we've come full circle, I am done being a cantankerous wet blanket of a scientist. So let me tell you my favorite true thing that I learned from all this media coverage:

According to local news reports, some beachgoers in the city of La
Jolla attempted to throw the squid back into the water to save them
from circling seagulls."

that sweet? Despite all the talk of red devils and carnivorous
calamari, here is proof positive of human empathy for other living
creatures. Even though they are slimy weird aliens, not cute fuzzy
mammals, people weren't out there taunting the squid, stepping on them,
or cutting them up. They were trying to save them.

I think that is awesome.


  1. I find it frustrating when headlines win over statistics and reason. I can see the appeal of reporting on the Humboldt squid because they are such dramatic-looking and intriguing creatures, but it's maddening when what should be an opportunity to disseminate knowledge about these animals turns into an excuse to weave a bizarre alarmist mythology about them.
    Jellyfish, my pet interest, also get a bad rap, with journalists describing them as aggressively stinging people. Is there anything less aggressive than a brainless, floating jellyfish?

  2. Totally! Nothing sells better than an aggressive invasion. Well, except murder. At least our invertebrates very rarely cause actual deaths. I really feel bad for the sharks . . . One weirdo just happens to eat a human every few years, and the whole community gets shunned!


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