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MIT Sea Grant's underwater robot to search for giant squid

An underwater robot from MIT is about to embark on a quest for the giant squid-a creature that has never been seen alive by humans.

The MIT Sea Grant Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) Laboratory is taking the AUV Odyssey IIB to New Zealand on a month-long search for the elusive creature starting next month. The AUV effort will be led by James G. Bellingham, assisted by a team including research specialist Robert Grieve and research engineer Bradley A. Moran.

The mission is to be one of a series, and is part of a decades-long effort by collaborator Clyde Roper to see the giant squid alive and in its natural habitat for the first time. The MIT crew and Dr. Roper, a squid expert at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, will be accompanied by National Geographic Television, which will document the hunt.

Dr. Roper chose the New Zealand site based on knowledge about the lifestyle of the elusive animal. Because giant squid are preyed upon by sperm whales, the crew will go where the sperm whales go-to the depths of Kaikoura Canyon off the east coast of South Island, New Zealand.

The squid, Architeuthis, is a predator of the deep ocean. Thought to grow up to 60 feet long, knowledge of Architeuthis has come from dead and dying specimens hauled up in fishermen's nets or washed ashore in a mess of rotted tissue.

MIT's AUV six-foot-long squid hunter, Odyssey IIB, will pack a National Geographic "critter cam" video camera designed for capturing squid and other deep-sea animals and phenomena on film. Odyssey IIB is known for surviving its explorations under the Arctic ice and the brutal currents of Puget Sound's Haro Strait. The vehicle can dive to a depth of 6,000 meters for up to three hours at a time.

Whether or not the team finds a giant squid, the mission will provide valuable information about this previously inaccessible region of deep ocean. The AUV will gather video footage near the Kaikoura Canyon bottom, a virtually unknown environment. "Our fundamental objective is to characterize these various marine habitats," Dr. Bellingham said. "We will be like the early explorers of the deep-sea floor. We will go down, take pictures, and see what we see."

The canyon is unexplored because the combined hazards of operating at great depth (3,000 meters within three miles of the coast), steep and rough terrain, and human-made hazards such as lost or abandoned fishing nets (ghost nets) that threaten to snare underwater vehicles. These hazards give the maneuverable AUV-with no cable to snag-an operating advantage over traditional, towed underwater vehicles.

Bellingham plans various search modes. In the first, the vehicle will operate alone, following pre-programmed patterns such as bottom-following or moving in ever-widening circles. Or, in a mode sometimes referred to as "following the wolves to the deer," the AUV will try to track a sperm whale as the whale tracks squid. Alternatively, the vehicle will swim by an underwater platform to which both squid bait and camera will be attached, thereby providing a good photo opportunity for the AUV.

AUV laboratory participation is supported by the Office of Naval Research. Other participants include National Geographic Television, the Smithsonian Institution and the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.

For more information, and to keep up with the mission as it progresses, see the Smithsonian's Ocean Planet Web site feature, "The Search for the Giant Squid," at <>.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 1997.

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