Deep Trouble : Scientist Didn’t Know Much About Jumbo Squid Until He Learned the Hard Way While Diving


As soon as my mask cleared, one of the bastards made a run at me. I swatted him, and faster than I could believe, one of his whips shot out and grabbed my wrist. I thought a hundred needles were stabbing me. I punched him in the eye, and he let go, and I stared up, figuring this wasn’t a healthy place to be. Then all of the sudden I felt myself being dragged down. Three of the . . . things had me, and they were yanking me down into the gloom.

--PETER BENCHLEY, author of “Beast”

You’re on a boat in the ocean at night. Bright lights penetrate and illuminate the sea, which soon teems with missile-shaped mollusks darting in every direction. You watch for a few minutes, then reluctantly slip overboard into a strange and eerie world of which you want nopart.

Such is the story of Alex Kerstitch, 46, whose experience with large squid inspired Peter Benchley to write this passage in his new novel about a giant squid that terrorizes the waters off Bermuda.


Kerstitch, who gave a first-hand account of the three things that had him in the latest issue of Baja Explorer magazine, was recently contacted at an Arizona high school, where he teaches marine biology, and asked to relive the sticky situation in which he found himself asmidnight approached almost exactly a year ago off the south central coast of Baja California.

“Upon entry, I was very excited,” Kerstitch recalled. “I didn’t get really nervous, or shook up, until after it was over.”

Kerstitch, along with Bob Cranston, Howard Hall and Mark Conlin, all of San Diego, were working on a documentary titled, “Life in the Youngest Sea,” to be shown on PBS’ “Nature Series” next year.

The ocean was calm and the sky clear when the group left La Paz at sunset aboard a 70-foot research vessel. They reached an area off San Diego Island--north of La Paz--long after darkness had turned a blue-green sea into a wavering black mass.

On went the lights and overboard went chunks of fresh tuna. It didn’t take long for thesquid to arrive. They would streak from the darkness and devour the chum thrown over the side.

“They were everywhere,” Kerstitch said. “It was the first time I had even seen a giant squid, period.


“It was spooky.”

The group was about to become the first, reportedly, to document the behavior of Dosidicus gigas , better known as jumbo squid, which grow to about eight feet. (Giant squid, the main subject of Benchley’s novel, grow much larger.) “As far as I know, nobody has actually filmedthis species of squid before,” said Hall, whose projects have taken him around the world.

They entered the world of jumbo squid and went their separate ways, each shooting and filming, awed by what they were seeing.

“They were like torpedoes,” Hall said. “They were really quick and they would flash colors; that’s the amazing thing about them. They would flash colors from absolute ivory-white to blood-red and then do it like six, seven times a second. It looked like they were being strobed.”

What the divers--particularly Kerstitch--would eventually learn is that not only do the iridescent colors of jumbo squid flow rapidly throughout their long and slender bodies, but the actions of squid can be similar to those of excited sharks--aggressive and dangerous.

“I know about squid,” Kerstitch said. “I’m a marine biologist, so I know what squid can do, but I didn’t realize they could be so fearsome.”

He soon learned, on what would be his final plunge into the water, as Hall’s father fought, with rod and reel, a 12-foot thresher shark that had whacked at his bait with its tail, becoming hooked in the process.


Kerstitch, after settling at a dimly lit depth of 30 feet, watched as the shark was raised slowly to the surface. Then a torpedo-shaped image, about 7 feet long, bolted from the depths and flung its body around the shark’s head and fins.

“As quickly as it had appeared, the squid released its grip on the shark and bolted away, having removed an orange-sized chunk of flesh from the side of the shark’s head with its powerful beak,” Kerstitch said.

Kerstitch soon found himself the object of the squid’s desire.

As he tried to snap pictures of the rubber-like projectiles shooting about, displaying what Kerstitch described as “frenzied” behavior, he felt himself sinking, then noticed that a large squid had wrapped around his right swim fin and was pulling him down. At this point, Kerstitch was not too concerned.

Hall had told him before the trip that one of his friends had experienced a similar incident but the squid had quickly let go.

“As I was going down, I thought, ‘Gee, that’s funny, the same thing happened to Howard’s friend,’ ” Kerstitch said. “After that, things started to happen pretty fast.”

Kerstitch kicked the squid off his right foot with his left, then began to ascend, when another squid shot out of the dark and attached itself to the back of his neck, the only partof his body not covered by the neoprene wet suit or dive equipment.


“I felt the cold embrace of tentacles with their sharp, toothed suction cups digging into my bare skin,” Kerstitch recalled. “It was like somebody was throwing a cactus on my neck.”

He struck the mollusk with his dive light, and it released its grip, disappearing into the dark--with the light and the gold chain Kerstitch was wearing.

Now Kerstitch wanted out, but he was attacked yet another time by a large squid that rushed out of the darkness and wrapped all 10 tentacles around his face and chest.

“In total darkness, I felt the animal tugging at my mask and camera,” Kerstitch said. “Concerned over the powerful beak, I grabbed the squid firmly, digging my fingers into itsbody.”

The squid released his face, then slid down to his waist and began dragging him toward the dark water below. It eventually let go, after taking Kerstitch’s decompression meter.

Kerstitch finally made it to the dive ladder and climbed out of the water, his neck covered with “nasty lesions” from sharp protrusions on the suction cups of the tentacled creatures, but was otherwise unhurt.


“Having lost my gold chain, my dive light and decompression meter, I realized that this had been an expensive dive,” Kerstitch said, admitting that he was fortunate to be alive.

Hall said: “He was so shook up, he just stood around the deck for a while and then went to bed.”

Meanwhile, Hall, Cranston and Conlin continued to dive. For some reason, the squid weren’t as interested in them as they were in Kerstitch.

Hall theorized that the squid were turned away by the bright lights of his movie camera--Kerstitch had been taking still photographs--and that perhaps when one squid attacked Kerstitch, the others ganged up to get an equal share.

“Once they start competing, they get pretty aggressive, and three grabbed him at the same time,” Hall said. “And they yanked and pulled on him, and a bunch of his gear got brokenand ripped off. He got cut up and it scared him a little bit.

“Everybody else had encounters, too, but nothing quite that savage. I had one come from behind me and grab me and pull me down about 20 feet, but it let go right away.”


Cranston said: “The squid would come up and grab hold of our legs, but we would shake them off right away. Alex wanted to find out what would happen if he let his squid hold onto him and he didn’t shake it off. As soon as one squid was on Alex and he wouldn’t shake it off, the others wanted in on it. He’s a scientist and he’s interested in animal behavior, so he kind of sacrificed himself in the name of animal science.”

The group called it a wrap when a higher link in the food chain--probably a large tiger shark--moved in to feed on the squid.

As Cranston was about to step overboard to shoot one last roll of film, a fishing rod baited with a diver-sized squid bent from the rod holder almost to the water, and the reel sang out.

“The rod was bent over, down in the water,” Cranston said. “The line was screaming off this pole. Howard said: ‘Well whatever feeds on them just showed up. You still want to go diving?’ And I looked over at the line and saw it reeling off and said, ‘No thanks.’ ”