Kaikoura, New Zealand
Well, this is the day we've all been waiting for. It started at 0600, as we had our first of four scheduled video conferences with a school group. We connected with Littleton, New Hampshire, where 30 middle school students had gathered to learn about the progress of the expedition and to ask questions that their studies about the giant squid and the expedition had prompted. It was nice to talk with the students back in my native New Hampshire.
Following our connection, we drove over to South Bay harbor to make another attempt to find Architeuthis. The sunrise on the way over was magnificent. Before we were able to dive, however, we had to finish some technical changes necessitated by the different camera we had to mount on the port-side manipulator. Then we hoisted anchor and headed south into the southern arm of Kaikoura Canyon called the Conway Trough. Once there, we ran a series of bathymetric soundings with the depth finder in order to determine the most suitable place to dive. We needed a spot no deeper than about 330 m (1000 feet), because it was to be Mike deGruy's first deep dive. It had to be smooth bottom, not pocked with sharp pinnacles, deep valleys or steep cliffs; quite a challenge for a place like Kaikoura Canyon, because the canyon must look a lot like the surrounding mountains. Finally, it had to be "fishy", especially for the species called hoki. Eventually we found the perfect spot that met all these criteria. The fathometer/fish finder showed a great bottom and several layers of organisms from about 250 feet down to just above the bottom.
The launch took place at 1400 hours (2PM) in calm seas and sunny skies. Mike descended through the lighted layer into the twilight zone. We began to see on our monitors small unidentifiable animals swimming past the cameras. Then, as the sub settled into the zone of perpetual darkness, we began to see more and more small, shiny-sided fishes darting rapidly about in the sphere of light. These were deep sea fishes about 6-8 cm long called pearlsides and lantern fishes, both members of the community of organisms that spend their days in the deep dark protective waters then migrate towards the surface at night to feed.
Suddenly a silver spear flashed into view then quickly disappeared. "What was that?!" "Oh! That was a hoki, just what we're looking for", said Peter. Dr. Peter McMillan is a colleague from NIWA, an ichthyologist who specializes in deep sea fishes. He has seen thousands of hoki during his research on them, but this is the first time he has seen them alive. You can imagine how excited we all became during the next 20 minutes as we saw hoki upon hoki…we were in a great school of them. Each fish was about 60-80 cm long, with a large head and a sleek, silvery body that tapered to a sharp. We saw hundreds of hoki! What a wonderful mix of fishes: the large, graceful hoki, dancing in the lighted darkness, and the flashing, jerky dashes of the lantern fishes and pearlsides. As I wondered about any possible community relationships among these species, I saw a hoki lunge upward with lightening speed and ingest with one gulp a pearlside. That behavior was repeated several times during our observations, and Peter believes that this is the first time that hokies have ever been observed feeding. Or, if you take the prey's point of view, it was the first time that pearlsides have been observed being preyed upon by their hoki predators.
So, where's the giant squid? Well, just as Mike was beginning the second hour of this exciting dive, and planning to thruster-jet through the school of hoki, the Captain called urgently over the speakers, "Abort the dive! A southerly is approaching fast! Get that sub in!" Southerlies can be very fast moving, severe storms with high winds that are very dangerous to boats, especially if they have heavy fishing gear over the side. We certainly qualified with our 4-ton sub trailing at the end of a 1000 foot tether! Reluctantly Mike had to begin his ascent back into the world of sunshine and light. But when he arrived at the surface he was greeted with dashing waves, black clouds, slanting rains and 25 knot winds….not exactly the sort of weather you want to retrieve a submersible in. A difficult and tense 45 minutes later, the sub was finally snatched out of the angry sea and plunked with a quick bump onto the pitching deck. What a great job by the sub and ship's crews.
Mike was released from his spherical capsule in a state of serene excitement…he had dived to nearly 1000 feet right into the middle of beautiful schools of fishes! And what is significant for the major objective of the expedition, this habitat and the hokey are thought to be associated with the giant squid! In fact, most of the specimens of Architeuthis captured in fishing nets in the past four years have been caught in trawls set to catch hoki. Consequently, we think we are looking in one of the places likely to be a haunt of the giant squid.
Time will tell. Perhaps tomorrow?