When Squid Fly: New Photographic Evidence

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.

Click and Zoom!

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)


36 responses to “When Squid Fly: New Photographic Evidence

  1. Thanks for the additonal photos, they really bring the words to life. What a sight that must have been!

  2. Nigmatullin Chingis

    Cordial thanks for excellent photos of flying squids!!!
    This typical flight and habitus of oceanic ommastrephid squids of genus Ommastrephes and Sthenoteuthis. I see these flying squids in open waters of Atlantic and Indian Oceans in 1970-s and 1980-s. It was Ommastrephes bartramii, Sthenoteuthis pteropus and S. oualaniensis with mantle length about 4-10 cm. There were also some observations of flying of onychoteuthid squid Onychoteuthis baksii. Unfortunately the quality of our cameras was low and did not give to receive the qualitative photos. In 1980-s Japanese colleagues had received good photos of flying squids! This juvenile squid on photos is either Sthenoteuthis pteropus (tropical waters) or Ommastrephes bartramii (subtropical waters). It’s important to know the coordinate of point where were made these photos (mainly latitude) and surface water temperature. These data can help for preliminary taxonomic identification of this squid. With best regards Chingis Nigmatullin, teuthologist

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  4. Chingis, I took the photos from the bow of the National Geographic Explorer last year and after we got home and realized how unusual the photos were got hold of the first officer on the ship about where we were and here is his reply:
    Per Hakan. our position was: > OCTOBER 30 1315 LT POSITION > LAT. 24-28.0S LONG 041-02.5W > Hope that adds some useful information for the researchers. > On Friday, November 27, 2009, Although we didn’t have a sea surface temp I was out shooting Flying fish so we we not in cold water.

    Hope that helps

    • Bob, I am researching flying squid having witnessed a shoal off Indonesia. I would be very grateful if I could see all 16 of your original photos. Regards, John Byrne

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  6. I’m working on a postgraduate level biomimetic robotics project and this behaviour could have a great deal of relevance. Would it be possible to have all 16 of your original photos?

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