Jim Harris has seen some gnarly stuff in a submarine. In his 25 years as a sub pilot and technician, he has guided air-tight contraptions alongside shivers of sharks in the Caribbean, smacks of jellyfish in the Atlantic, and sperm whales in the frigid waters off Antarctica.
But even Harris was shocked when, during a recent dive off the coast of Japan, he turned on his spherical sub's lights to illuminate a creature so rare it had never before been seen alive by humans: a giant squid.
Harris's remarkable find didn't come easily. The Vero Beach-based company for which he works, Triton Submarines, had been hired to pilot Japanese squid scientist Tsunemi Kubodera and a cameraman to the depths off the Ogasawara Islands. Using Triton's special, spherical subs, they were on a long-shot mission to find and film the boneless behemoths.
Giant squid, also known as kraken in pirate lore, can grow to more than 40 feet in length. Yet when Harris arrived in Japan last July, Triton pilots and Kubodera had already been at sea for a week without spotting one of the elusive ocean monsters. But Harris struck squid gold on his first dive.
Harris's bright-yellow sub was the size of a German Panzer tank. Scientists had attached a three-foot squid to the sub as a lure and outfitted the machine with ultra-sensitive infrared cameras. As the sub sank slowly into the darkening sea, the only light was a tiny LED flashing blue, green, and red.
Two thousand feet down, however, a spasm of excitement ran through the small sub cabin.
"All of a sudden everyone started going nuts," Harris says. He glanced at the infrared camera screen. "I could see these big tentacles come out of nowhere and wrap around our bait squid."
Harris flipped on the submarine's powerful lights. Right in front of them was one of the rarest creatures on Earth: a ten-foot squid with eyes the size of grapefruit staring back at them.
"It looked like it was plated with gold leaf," Harris says of the beautiful aquatic beast. "It was absolutely stunning."
Confronted with the kraken, the three men were speechless. They watched the animal twist and turn like an aquatic spirit for 18 minutes. At one point, Kubodera said, "It looks rather lonely."
Finally, as the sub reached 3,000 feet beneath the sea, the squid vanished back into the ocean ink. Further dives failed to repeat the underwater encounter. Harris is humble about the experience. He shrugs off disappointment that the squid was not, in fact, that gigantic. "A lot of people want it to be a massive animal as big as a school bus, but it wasn't. It was the species we were searching for, and it was a beautiful animal, and it was alive. And that's what's important."
The kraken cameo is captured in the season finale of Curiosity on the Discovery Channel.
"Who knows when anyone will ever see one again?" Harris says.