Venice nonprofit launches research expedition in Antarctica
The giant squid and its otherworldly look have long captured the imaginations of writers and artists. With an estimated size of 40 feet, the fearsome predator has inspired legends of the Kraken and journeyed into infamy through its depiction in literature such as “Moby Dick” and “20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
Yet, in the depths of the southern oceans lies a much more elusive—and colossal—creature.
“It is the largest invertebrate on our planet, with the world’s biggest eye, and hooked tentacles, and it glows in the dark. It’s truly our imagination of a sea monster,” said Matthew Mulrennan, co-founder and CEO of Kolossal, a Venice-based nonprofit.
Since 1925 only a few specimens of the colossal squid have been documented. Much of the information available to scientists comes from beaks and other evidence found in the bellies of sperm whales.
Native to the Antarctic deep sea waters, the largest specimen ever recorded was caught inadvertently by a New Zealand fishing vessel in 2007. The sub-adult female squid weighed approximately 1,000 pounds, but based on recovered beaks and segmented specimens, marine scientists estimate fully grown colossal squids can reach up to twice that size.
In December, Kolossal headed up an international expedition to Antarctica in an attempt to film the colossal squid in its natural habitat for the first time in history. The project represents Mulrennan’s attempt to transform Antarctic research expeditions by partnering with tourism companies already conducting pleasure voyages into Antarctica to reduce costs.
According to Mulrennan, “finding the colossal squid (will be) like landing on Mars, whereas finding the giant squid is like landing on the moon.” To this day, little is known about the creature and its nature.
“It’s one of the ocean’s biggest predators, and we’ve done little about it in 100 years. There are still huge unknowns about its behaviors and its biology. Imagine if we filmed a rhinoceros once, as it is dead or dying, and then we don’t decide to go out and study it,” Mulrennan said.
Kolossal’s December voyage is the first of several planned for the multi-year expedition. Mulrennan hopes to answer basic questions about the colossal squid, such as hunting behavior, diet, and how it utilizes its gigantic eye.
Because the behaviors of the colossal squid are still such a mystery, Mulrennan has had to formulate multiple strategies to attract the creature. Researchers will use both bait and lights in their attempts to capture the squid on camera.
To film the squid, SubC Imaging, a subsea camera manufacturer, will install the AKBAR II (A Camera for Kraken Baiting and Recording) onto the Chimu Adventures and Intrepid Travel’s tourism vessels. Marine Scientists, Mulrennan included, will then travel with the tourism vessel to conduct research and educate passengers aboard.
All told, the expedition is expected to cost only $15,000, including travel. The initial startup cost for 2022 will be approximately $10,000, with the 2023-2025 research seasons costing $5,000 combined. Kolossal has already raised 75% of those funds and is holding a crowdfunding campaign to help complete the costs.
As the project stands, all the technology has been tested by researchers, and Kolossal has obtained the necessary permits. Mulrennan left in November for Antarctica to prepare for the expedition, which departed on December 1.
In 2020, Dr. Alexander Remelsco died from COVID-19. He was one of the foremost researchers regarding the colossal squid and a supporter of Mulrennan and Kolossal’s mission. Mulrennan and the team and Kolossal intend to dedicate some portion of their research to Remelsco, but the urgency for the project also comes from the degradation of the southern oceans.
Mulrennan feels that because the ocean is out of sight, it’s out of mind, but it absorbs 90% of the heat from climate change and 25% of carbon emissions, making them more acidic. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Southern Ocean is disproportionately affected by heat increases, accounting for 35 to 43% of the global ocean heat increases.
Combined with overfishing, Mulrennan doesn’t seem optimistic about the state of the polar environments.
“The ocean is in really rough shape from overfishing for decades, and now we’re looking towards the end of the earth. The Deep Sea off Antarctica is as pristine as you can get, and we’re still trying to fish there,” Mulrennan said.
One of the key species being overfished in the Southern Ocean is the Chilean Sea Bass, one of the primary interactors with the colossal squid. The sea bass and the colossal squid prey on each other, Mulrennan explained, with the sea bass eating juvenile squids and vice versa.
One of Mulrennan’s goals for the project is to measure the conservation status of the colossal squid so that researchers know where they stand on the endangered species list. He also hopes that Kolossal’s discoveries will inspire the next generation’s love of the ocean, as it did his.
“The bottom line is when I talk to kids about serious issues affecting the ocean, it can be hard. Plastic pollution, overfishing, and climate change are all really bad news stuff. But when I talk to them about the colossal squid, their eyes light up with fascination and curiosity,” Mulrennan said.