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Antarctic expedition

Marine Institute students aim to film colossal squid in Southern Ocean

Student Life

By Moira Baird

Two Marine Institute graduate students are cruising the waters off Antarctica in search of the elusive colossal squid.

From left, Jennifer Herbig and Eugenie Jacobsen near Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, in October.
Photo: Submitted

Jennifer Herbig and Eugenie Jacobsen are part of an international expedition aiming to film the world’s largest invertebrate in its natural habitat in the Southern Ocean.

The goal is to document the colossal squid on film before the 100th anniversary of its 1925 discovery, learn more about it and raise awareness of the need for conservation in Antarctica.

Two-week voyage

“I’m super excited to be part of this Antarctica project. Very little is known about the colossal squid and its population size,” said Ms. Herbig in an interview prior to the expedition.

“Capturing the colossal squid on film and seeing them in the wild — that’s what will be really exciting,” said Ms. Jacobsen.

Their two-week voyage began earlier this month in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost tip in South America and the launch point for the expedition on board the adventure cruise ship, Ocean Endeavour.

The team will survey locations near the Antarctic Peninsula — deploying a tethered, deep-sea camera system designed by Clarenville-based SubC Imaging to a maximum water depth of 500 metres.

Jennifer Herbig holds a Greenland halibut collected near Baffin Island.
Photo: Submitted

Bait and lights

In November the students received training to operate SubC’s specialized camera, frame, lighting and winch system.

The camera will be lowered from a side hatch of the cruise ship.

“We’ll deploy the camera opportunistically when the ship stops for tourist expeditions,” said Ms. Herbig. “The plan is to film for six to eight hours and watch the live feed as it comes in. We’ll use locally sourced bait to attract the colossal squid and we’ll also use different light configurations.”

One potential bait is Antarctic toothfish, a large predator that can grow up to two metres in length.

Ms. Herbig says anecdotal evidence indicates the fish is part of the colossal squid’s diet.

The first whole specimen of a colossal squid was caught in a Russian scientific trawl in 1981.
Photo: Copyright Dr. Alexander Remeslo

“Hopefully, we can actually see how they move and how they hunt, but we’ll also see what else we can find at that depth,” said Ms. Jacobsen. “It’s an exploratory mission and people have said that anytime you get a chance to drop a camera in the waters around Antarctica, you’ll always see something that people haven’t seen before.”

Rarely seen

While little is known about the colossal squid, they are believed to live in extreme depths of the Southern Ocean.

The species was discovered from remains found in the stomach of a sperm whale.

Since then, only a small number of colossal squid have been seen alive or caught in fishing nets.

They have eyes the size of dinner plates, weigh up to 700 kilograms and measure 10-12 metres in length, including its hooked tentacles.

Although the better-known giant squid found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans has longer tentacles, the colossal squid is heavier.

Arctic experience

Eugenie Jacobsen holds a snailfish collected in a survey trawl near Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut.
Photo: Submitted

Both students have field experience in Arctic environments.

For the past two years, Ms. Herbig and Ms. Jacobsen participated in scientific voyages to the Labrador Sea and the Canadian Arctic on board the research vessel, CCGS Amundsen.

This year, the women also worked with underwater cameras, filming Greenland shark for a fellow graduate student.

Ms. Herbig is working on her doctorate in fisheries science and technology, focusing on the effects of environmental variation and bottom-up processes on the abundance, distribution and movement of Arctic cod, a key forage fish in marine food webs in the Canadian Arctic.

Ms. Jacobsen, a master’s student in fisheries science and technology, is studying contaminants in mesopelagic and demersal fish in the Labrador Sea and Canadian Arctic, including the lantern fish, which glows underwater and lives in water depths between 200 metres and 1,000 metres.

Team effort

“The colossal squid expedition is an unparalleled opportunity for our graduate research students to collaborate with an international team to expand our limited knowledge of this rarely seen species,” said Dr. Paul Brett, acting vice-president, Memorial University (Marine Institute).

“We are thrilled that our students will be able to lend their Canadian Arctic research experience and know-how in deploying similar innovative technology to this deep-ocean exploration. Through knowledge generation, research and industry collaboration, we are bringing our expertise to the world to gain a better understanding of our global ocean ecosystems.”

Two women in winter clothing stand next to each other on a beach with a rough ocean in the background.
From left, graduate students Eugenie Jacobsen and Jennifer Herbig went to Antarctica this month to try to film the colossal squid.
Photo: Angie Bishop

Five partners are involved in the expedition spearheaded by Kolossal, a California-based ocean exploration and conservation non-profit organization founded by marine scientist and CEO, Matt Mulrennan.

Expedition partners include SubC Imaging, a global leader in developing innovative subsea cameras, systems, lights and lasers; Intrepid Travel, a small-group adventure company that operates the Ocean Endeavour; and Chimu Adventures, a specialist travel operator in Antarctica, the Arctic, Latin America and South America.

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