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Kiwi researcher helps net world’s first giant squid

Kiwi researcher helps net world’s first giant squid footage with “milkshake” bait

A research assistant role turned into an once-in-a-lifetime experience for Severine Hannam when the scientific expedition she was on captured the world’s first footage of a giant squid in its natural environment.

The footage will air on New Zealand screens this week (Monday 2 September) on SKY TV’s Animal Planet as part of their ‘Monster Week’ programming.

Hannam joined Auckland Museum as a collection manager last year but at the time of the June 2012 expedition was working as a research assistant to Kiwi marine biologist Dr Steve O’Shea.

“[Dr O’Shea] supervised me for my Master’s degree and had already employed me as a research assistant for three years. Basically the role saw me getting the necessary fishing gear ready from New Zealand.

“I had to package 200 kilograms of frozen giant squid and send it by air to Tokyo. Once on board, I spent multiple hours blending the defrosted giant squid meat into a “squid juice”. The juice was used by [Dr O’Shea] to lure a giant squid close enough to a submarine to film it.”

Hannam says the international team, including Japanese scientist Dr Tsunemi Kubodera and US deep sea biologist Dr Edie Widder, had put in massive amounts of preparation but the task of actually locating the squid still seemed daunting.

“The team had spent 10 years planning this expedition. The location off Ogasawara Island, part of the Bonin Island group of islands, was carefully selected for its high number of giant squid caught by the local fishermen.

“We had put all the chances on our side but once at sea it really felt like we were looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Adding to Hannam’s uncertainties over finding the squid was the fact this wasn’t the first expedition she had taken part in to search for a giant squid.

“I spent a month on the Sea of Cortes (Mexico) three years ago looking for the giant but we were unsuccessful.”

Despite seemingly slim odds, the expedition did locate the giant squid and Hannam was one of only a handful of people to witness the first sighting.

“I was one of the five lucky people to be there when giant squid was first sighted. We were all very excited but we kept it to ourselves for a few hours. Once everybody on board knew, we could all relax as we had achieved the goal of the expedition.”

Hannam says one of the most unexpected revelations that came from seeing the giant squid, alive and in its natural environment, was its beauty.

“Everyone was incredibly surprised by the beauty of the giant squid. A dead giant squid has a dark red skin which peels off the white flesh. The live animal had stunning shades of silver and gold.”

“Giant squid has been a dream for so many scientists for so long that I feel extremely privileged to have been part of the successful expedition.”

Aside from whizzing up squid juice to entice the giant squid, Hannam was also able to carry out her own dive in bowl-like submarine which saw her travelling down 700 metres and spending four hour under the water.

“It was a once in a life time experience. It’s almost impossible to describe the weightless feeling inside the glass bowl-shaped submarine. The bioluminescence in the darkness is I imagine like what astronauts see when they’re in space.”

The giant squid footage will air for the first time on New Zealand screens next month on Monday 2 September.

LEGENDS OF THE DEEP: THE GIANT SQUIDANIMAL PLANET - Monday 2 September, 9.30pmIn this amazing documentary, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, witness incredible footage of a real live giant squid, filmed swimming in its deep-ocean habitat. After 285 hours of searching the inky depths during 55 submarine dives a scientific team finally witnesses the elusive giant squid in its natural environment. Legends of the Deep: The Giant Squid is story of three scientists, including New Zealander Dr Steve O’Shea, who set off in search of this legendary monster of the deep.

Giant squid expedition – Q&A with Severine Hannam

When did the expedition take place?
The expedition started on the 21 June 2012 and ended on the 31 July 2012, we spent a total of 40 days at sea.

What did your research assistant role with the expedition involve?

I was part of this expedition as Dr Steve O’Shea’s research assistant. Steve is a Kiwi marine biologist, he supervised me for my Master’s degree and had already employed me as a research assistant for three years. I was getting the necessary fishing gear ready from New Zealand. I had to package 200 kilograms of frozen Giant squid and send it by air to Tokyo. Once on board, I spent multiple hours blending the defrosted giant squid meat into a “squid juice”. The juice was used by Steve to lure a giant squid close enough to a submarine to film it.

How confident did the team seem of finding a giant squid before they actually located the squid?

The team had spent 10 years planning this expedition. The location off Ogasawara Island, part of the Bonin Island group of islands, was carefully selected for its high number of giant squid caught by the local fishermen. We had put all the chances on our side but once at sea it really felt like we were looking for a needle in a hay stack.

What was the reaction on board the expedition when the squid was first sighted – were you there when it happened?

I was one of the 5 lucky people to be there when giant squid was first sighted. We were all very excited but we kept it to ourselves for a few hours. Once everybody on board knew, we could all relax as we had achieved the goal of the expedition.

Were there any really significant unexpected finds about giant squid that came from seeing it in its natural environment?

Everyone was incredibly surprised by the beauty of the giant squid. A dead giant squid has a dark red skin which peels off the white flesh. The live animal had stunning shades of silver and gold.

How does your involvement with this expedition compare with any other experiences you’ve had in your career or studies – tell me what the chance to be involved with this expedition and this discovery meant for you?

This was my second expedition looking for giant squid, I spent a month on the Sea of Cortes (Mexico) three years ago looking for the giant but we were unsuccessful. Giant squid has been a dream for so many scientists for so long that I feel extremely privileged to have been part of the later successful expedition. I was lucky enough to do a submarine dive, Wensung, the pilot Mark and myself went down to 700 metres deep and spent about 4 hours under, this was a once in a life time experience.

It’s almost impossible to describe the weightless feeling inside the glass bowl (I feel a little sorry for goldfishes now) shaped submarine. The bioluminescence in the darkness I imagine would be what astronauts see when in space.

Do you know what the expedition team has done since – have they gone back and sighted it again for example?

The NHK and Discovery teams have been working around the clock to produce a documentary. The boat crew is very probably working just as hard on keeping Alucia as pristine as she was when we first set foot on it. Each scientist went back to their home land and jobs. I arrived back to a new job at the Auckland Museum as a collection manager!

ENDS

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