The rare invasion of perhaps millions of large and ravenous squid off Southern California has been more like a blitz, with the slithery cephalopods showing first off San Diego (last week) and advancing at least as far north as Santa Barbara (this week).
This has sent anglers clambering onto fishing boats for a truly wet and wild experience, but for one resident catching the mysterious denizens wasn’t enough. Jon Schwartz dove in with his camera to document the experience from beneath the surface (his self-portrait is pictured at right).
It was not the safest swim the grade-school teacher from Oceanside has enjoyed, and this is not something others should attempt. These Humboldt or jumbo squid boast razor-sharp tentacle claws and a parrot-like beak. These squid are notorious for their frenzied behavior — they’re even cannibalistic — and have attacked divers off Mexico. They’ve also adversely impacted native fisheries.
But Schwartz, who is an expert marine photographer, captured some incredible images and even brought a few squid to class for first-grade study.
“I asked a bunch of experts if they thought it was safe and they said it might be,” Schwartz, who specializes in photographing large game fish from underwater, said of his weekend plunge.
Humboldt squid have made headlines for good reason.
The deep-water critters, which can measure 7 feet and weigh up to 100 pounds, are visitors from far to the the south and only show off California every 4-5 years.
These northbound forays — perceived by some scientists as an attempt at permanent colonization — are believed to be spurred by a warm current or some other anomaly.
A weak El Nino in 2009-10 might have spurred the recent invasion. In past episodes, the squid have shown as far north as British Columbia. They are believed to have an adverse impact on many native fisheries.
The presence of squid, however, is a boon for sportfishing landings that offer special daytime and nighttime expeditions, with night generally best because the squid — which typically inhabit depths from 650 to 3,000 feet — are closer to the surface and can be attracted by floodlights.
Schwartz hired a yacht to deliver him to the site of one of the bites off Newport Beach. Armed with just a camera and strobe, he dove in, adjusted his gear and began to shoot away.
As someone who has been scuba diving with Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico, this reporter can attest that it’s an unsettling but surreal experience. I encountered a small group of squid, pulsating in the blue water, at 60 feet. Several of them charged toward me looking like alien beings, with their tentacles clasped to an arrow-like point. They traveled through the water at a remarkable speed but veered off as they reached me, and vanished.
I had heard about attacks by squid on humans in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico. In one well-documented incident a scuba diver was dragged downward and had some of his gear ripped away in what became a life-threatening frenzy. His companions managed to pull him aboard, but he had suffered numerous cuts and his wetsuit had been torn.
Schwartz was interested in photographing them because they are such rare visitors to Southern California and possess an amazing ability to change color and pulsate with iridescent light, carried out via millions of chromatophores as perhaps a means of communication.
“There were some that were flashing below me that fell in love with my strobe and they were really wild,” Schwartz said. “They sit there and stare at you with tentacles pitched forward in a kind of arrow.”
The teacher-photographer added that he was less afraid of the squid than he was of much larger predators that patrol the ocean at night.
“I was worried about mako sharks and great white sharks, too,” he said.
— Images are courtesy of Jon Schwartz and protected by copyright laws. To read more about Schwartz’s adventures, please visit his blog