On August 2, I published an online article with Scientific American about flying squid. Not flying fish. Flying squid.
Marine biologist Silvia Maciá was boating on the north coast of Jamaica in the summer of 2001 when she noticed something soar out of the sea. At first she thought it was a member of the flying fish family—a group of marine fish that escape predators by breaking the water’s surface at great speed and gliding through the air on unusually large pectoral fins. But after tracing the creature’s graceful arc for a few seconds, Maciá realized this was no fish. It was a squid—and it was flying.
With her husband and fellow biologist Michael Robinson, Maciá identified the airborne cephalopod as a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea)—a lithe, torpedo-shaped critter with long, undulating fins. They think the squid was startled by the noise of the boat’s outboard engine and estimated that the 20-centimeter-long mollusk reached a height of two meters above the water and flew a total distance of 10 meters—50 times its body length. What’s more, the squid extended its fins and flared its tentacles in a radial pattern while airborne, as though guiding its flight.
Macia eventually co-wrote a 2004 study in the Journal of Molluscan Studies that described several observations of flying squid, but the paper relied largely on anecdotal evidence. There were no photographs or videos.
Recently, however, on a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, retired geologist and amateur photographer Bob Hulse captured what may be the best-ever photographic evidence of flying squid. Hulse sent the pictures to University of Hawaii oceanographer Richard Young, who passed them along to Ron O’Dor, senior scientist for the Census of Marine Life. O’Dor thinks he can analyze the photos to gain a better understanding of squid aerodynamics, which few people have been able to properly study due to lack of adequate documentation.
An abridged version of my online article will also appear in the October print issue of Scientific American, accompanied by one of Bob’s photographs. Unfortunately, due to spatial constraints, the printed magazine page cannot properly accommodate the glory of Bob’s photographs. He took his photos while aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, so he wasn’t exactly face-to-tentacle with the squid. An image cropped from such a distant image and pasted on a magazine page can only offer so much. What we need is one of those fancy setups straight out of an episode of CSI. You know, something like: ‘Computer: locate the squid; zoom in 3 billion and 4/5%! Now, identify the species. Thank you, computer. Now commence calamari conversion.”
Okay, enough of that. I have a better solution. Here are Bob’s pictures. When you click on them, the ocean should flood your browser. And then you can zoom in even further to locate the flying squid above the waves. Look for the triangular tips, the floppy fins, the fanned tentacles and the jets of water trailing the squid rockets.