Australian angler and outdoor journalist Al McGlashan seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time to witness nature’s rarest displays. Last year, the host of the television show “Big Fish, Small Boat” made headlines when he got a harrowingly close underwater view of a mako shark attacking a striped marlin as he filmed the fish’s release for Australian fisheries officials. Now McGlashan is back in the news after discovering a fresh carcass of one of the ocean’s most elusive and mythic creatures, the giant squid. As McGlashan’s cameras rolled, blue sharks began feeding on the squid within reach of him and his amazed crew. Field & Stream has exclusive video and photos of the encounter, which McGlashan calls “the weirdest, but not the scariest” of his career.
McGlashan was chasing yellowfin tuna 30 miles off Jervis Bay, two hours south of his home base of Sydney, Australia, on June 1. He spotted a pair of albatrosses floating on the water and decided to explore. “As we motored over I could see something red floating just below the surface, and I said, ‘Oh, look, it’s a giant squid.’ We were all laughing, making jokes,” McGlashan says, noting that these creatures of the deep ocean are exceedingly rare finds at the surface. Indeed, the giant squid had never been photographed alive until 2002, when a dying specimen was documented in shallow water in Japan. In 2004 two Japanese scientists took the first photographs of the giant squid in its natural deep-ocean habitat, using a flash camera fitted onto a lure to finally capture what marine biologist Richard Ellis had called “the most elusive image in natural history.”
Joking gave way to amazement as McGlashan’s boat pulled alongside the carcass. There in front of him was a mythic beast that had inspired wild tales of sea monsters from sailors of old. Giant squid have eight arms and two long feeding tentacles. These tentacles, the longest of any cephalopod, terminate in a club bearing hooks for grasping prey. These clubs were missing. “Even so the squid was seriously massive stretching more than 12 feet in length, it would have weighed well in excess of 400 pounds,” McGlashan says. “The tentacles were thicker than a human thigh and laced with huge suckers that all led straight to a huge razor beak. Seeing one in the flesh it was easy to see why it why they had terrorized early sailors so much.”
Aside from the missing clubs and few scars here and there, this giant–the biggest invertebrate on earth–was whole. “That was the amazing part, that it was still largely intact. I’ve found bits over the years, but never found a whole squid that was 3 or 4 meters long. This was fresh. It still had its red color and did not smell at all.”
It wouldn’t be intact for long. McGlashan tied the squid to the boat, took some photographs, and then started filming for the TV show. “I was talking about how amazing this is, how spectacular, and I turn around and a blue shark is swimming straight at the boat,” McGlashan says. “I tell you his eyeballs just about popped out of his head, he’s so excited, and he tears into the squid right in front of us. He pretty much turned up on cue.”
“It was spectacular. The shark was totally oblivious to us, and at one point his tail was almost in the boat. We grabbed his tail and pulled and he submitted to that quite happily.” Justin Lewis lowered a camera off the side of the boat and recorded the shark ripping into the squid. “He was bumping into the camera,” McGlashan says. “It was absolutely amazing.”
The rare encounter with the elusive giant squid and its shark scavengers, McGlashan says, was “a bit more placid” than his brush with the mako that savaged the marlin. “Blue sharks are pretty dopey. They stayed with us for three hours feeding on the squid, and we could reach over and touch them on the nose. I don’t think I would have done that with the mako.”
“Still, it has to go down as the weirdest thing I’ve found out at sea, but not the scariest–I think the mako still rates No. 1 at that end. I suppose I’d say this is the most unique experience–not just finding the squid, but having that interaction with the shark eating it and just being totally oblivious to us made it pretty cool.”
Realizing the squid was too heavy to haul into the boat, McGlashan and Phil Bolton (with gaffe), a fisheries officer with New South Wales Fishing and Acquaculture who accompanied him on the trip, elected to cut out the squid’s beak and donate it to the Australian Museum. Growth rings on these beaks, which are often recovered undigested from the stomachs of sperm whales, the squid’s only known predator, can help scientists age the creature. The beak will become part of the museum’s Deep Ocean exhibition, which opens June 16 and includes a 16-foot model of a giant squid.
Mandy Reid, squid specialist with the museum, told The Daily Telegraph that a sperm whale might have attacked the giant squid. “Sperm whales are far bigger, heavier and faster in the water,” Reid said. “The giant squid are quite slow, so the whale generally wins.”
But the relative lack of markings on the squid leads McGlashan to believe otherwise. “I think if a sperm whale or shark had had a go at it we would have seen it, but there were no visible signs,” he says. “I think it had just died and we were very lucky to be in the right place to see it. I get to see a lot of amazing things, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find one of these giants.”