Large predatory squid have been beaching themselves along a portion of Central California in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as a “mysterious frenzy of suicide.”
Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Humboldt squid, also called jumbo squid, have become stranded on beaches in Santa Cruz County, within Monterey Bay. Carcasses have lined long stretches of coast and beachgoers have been cautioned not to collect and eat the creatures because they might contain toxins.
Very little is known about Humboldt squid, which can measure to about six feet and weigh more than 100 pounds, because they spend most of their lives at depths of 650 to 3,000 feet.
These types of strandings occur every four or five years along California and scientists can only theorize as to why they happen.
William Gilly, a Humboldt squid expert from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that strandings seem to occur when the squid try to establish themselves in new territory.
“My theory is that when the squid invade a new area–they are returning to Monterey Bay for the first time in nearly three years, and the squid are only 8 or 9 months old–they follow an algorithm (which is to) swim and find productive areas, especially by investigating anomalies, until you run into trouble,” Gilly said.
“That mission takes some of them onto the beach. The question I can’t answer is why they stop doing this after they successfully colonize an area. Perhaps the real pioneers are selected out, or maybe the survivors of a stranding go back to sea and warn the others.”
Until fairly recently, the northern range of Humboldt squid was Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California. But the predatory mollusks have expanded their range, in stages that apparently are continuing, to include California and perhaps even the Pacific Northwest.
The northernmost mass stranding, on record, occurred in 2005 off British Columbia, where wolves on an outer island were seen gnawing on rubbery squid carcasses.
Recreational fishermen target them occasionally during nighttime bites that are often frenetic, because feeding squid are wildly active and even cannibalistic. Recreational divers have plunged in with them, often with frightening results.
It remains unclear what impact their expansion into California waters has had on commercial fisheries, but Humboldt squid have been blamed for depleting the hake fishery off Chile.
One thing is sure, when these bizarre creatures do come ashore in large numbers, it’s a surreal phenomenon.
“You just see them essentially killing themselves, and it’s really weird to see it,” Hanna Rosen, a graduate student at Hopkins, told KCBS News in San Francisco. “They don’t see the shore very often, so it might just be that they don’t understand what’s going on around them, and they’re just trying to get away and don’t fully realize that if they swim towards the shore, they’re going to run out of water eventually.”
–Top image showing stranded Humboldt squid in Santa Cruz, California, is courtesy of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Bottom image showing divers swimming with Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez is courtesy of Jim Knowlton
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