JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
For thousands of years, sailors told stories of giant squid. In myth and cinema, it was the most terrible of sea monsters with a terrifying moniker of kraken.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLASH OF THE TITANS")
LIAM NEESON: (as Zeus) Release the kraken.
LYDEN: "Clash of the Titans." But outside of mythology, the giant squid is very real, although until recently, we'd only seen them in still photographs. After decades of searching the seas, scientists have captured the first video of a live giant squid thousands of feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
Edie Widder is the ocean researcher who took the footage. Welcome. And, Edie, congratulations.
EDIE WIDDER: Oh, thank you, Jacki. It's a long time coming.
LYDEN: These images are really fascinating, and the camera that took the pictures was your brain child. How did you attract the squid towards the camera?
WIDDER: I had been wanting for a long time to explore the ocean in a different way because I've always been concerned about how much stuff we must be scaring away with bright, noisy submersibles. Any animal with any sense is going to get away from that. So I wanted to develop a stealthy system.
And besides having a stealthy camera, I wanted to not just put down bait the way normally people do to attract animals, because dead bait is just going to attract scavengers. And so I wanted to attract active predators. And so I developed an optical lure that imitates a particular type of bioluminescent display that I thought should be attractive to large predators.
LYDEN: So I have a really sort of silly question. How did we know the giant squid exists if nobody had seen it?
WIDDER: It's not a silly question at all. Actually, the reason we know giant squids exist is they happen to float when they die. But we really only explored 5 percent of the ocean, and I think we've explored that in the wrong way. I think we've been scaring a lot of animals away. So what about the stuff that doesn't float when it dies?
LYDEN: So what does a giant squid look like? I mean, on the video, you have this just sort of gorgeous - it almost looks like a water lily folding and unfolding, only of course, much bigger.
WIDDER: The footage I got, yes, was just amazing to see it come in. The first few times that we saw it on camera, it just was like it was kind of doing a fan dance and just showing us little bits of itself. We'd see the arms kind of wave by the camera. And we did see one long shot of it. But the most spectacular shot was when it came in on the attack. And you'll note that it comes up over that sphere, which is the optical lure, and attacks the camera system itself.
LYDEN: What color are they?
WIDDER: On my camera system, you can't tell what color because it's black and white, but on the imagery that was shot from the submersible - it was a high-resolution camera - and the color was utterly different than any of us expected.
The one that had been brought to the surface and that there's pictures of on the Web was red, and a lot of deep-sea squid are red. But this was a spectacular silver and gold. And just - it looks like it's carved out of metal. It's just absolutely breathtaking and completely unexpected.
LYDEN: How large do they get, and how deep are they found in the ocean?
WIDDER: The giant squid from the tip of the mantel to the tip of the tentacles, I think the longest one ever measured was supposedly 55 feet. The ones we were finding from the tip of the mantel to the tip of the arms were between 10 and 12 feet. And then the tentacles are usually another two-thirds of that. So they could have been as much as 30 feet.
LYDEN: Wow. How did you feel when you saw this creature on the video?
WIDDER: Oh, the excitement was incredible. It's just amazing to be able to have a moment like that and realize you've done something that people have been trying to do for decades. And that was what - actually what got me into science in the first place, this opportunity to explore a frontier. But I never, never imagined that I'd get an opportunity like this.
LYDEN: Edie Widder is a deep sea explorer. She's the founder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association. She captured the first video of a giant squid swimming. And that video will air on the Discovery Channel on the 27th of January. She spoke to us in member station WQCS in Fort Pierce, Florida. Edie Widder, what an exciting discovery.
WIDDER: It was the excitement of my life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.