Editor's Note: William Gilly, a professor of biology at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, embarked on new expedition this month to study jumbo squid in the Gulf of California on the National Science Foundation–funded research vessel New Horizon. This is his fourth blog post about the trip.

gilly squid expedition tres virgenesSEA OF CORTEZ—I'd like to start by correcting some ambiguous wording that may lead to a misunderstanding in the previous post. Our ship is not owned or operated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS)—nor the National Science Foundation. New Horizon is owned/operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of University of California, San Diego. UNOLS does not operate or own any research vessels per se and is an advisory body, of which Scripps is partner. For more information, read a summary about the organization (pdf).

Today brought us close to lonely, desolate Isla Tortuga, a caldera floating alone 20 miles off the coast of the Baja peninsula. From here the Tres Virgenes volcanoes loom, even though it is hazy and they are 60 miles away. Once again we are carrying out an acoustic survey in this area, because it tends to attract sperm whales, and that suggests it is also attractive to their main prey, Humboldt squid. But we will have to wait till dark to sample squid—they tend to be at a depth of several hundred meters during the daytime, hanging out in the deep scattering layers with the myctophids and krill and other small creatures that are their favorite prey. Here on the surface, none of that is visible, only the shell of the great turtle—or "tortuga"—floating on the sea where it holds up the world. Perhaps the tortuga can peer into the depths and reveal secrets even the piercing acoustic eye of the sonar can't see.

gilly squid expedition tortugaWhat exactly is the turtle that supports the world? John Steinbeck used the image, and wrote to a college friend, "Modern sanity and religion are a curious delusion. Yesterday I went out in a fishing boat—out in the ocean. By looking over the side into the blue water, I could quite easily see the shell of the turtle who supports the world." Of course Steinbeck also used the turtle imagery in Grapes of Wrath, a book that is peppered with non-teleological ideas that seem to be developed more fully and explicitly in Sea of Cortez a few years later. Perhaps Sea of Cortez is an unintended Rosetta stone for Grapes—the same images and issues must have been swirling in Steinbeck's mind when he wrote both of these great books.

Our limited Web capability onboard has revealed that a turtle supporting the world is a common mythological symbol in several cultures around the world, but I did not find any real source myths in my quick search.  In general it seems that the turtle carries the earth or firmament on top of its shell.  I was somewhat surprised by this, because I had always seen the turtle from another frame of reference—one from outer space in which the turtle is beneath the globe balanced on its feet. In this view, the lowly turtle becomes Atlas holding up the world, and what it does matters to everything on the planet. But you must step back and view the bigger picture to see this. Perhaps Steinbeck's plodding reptile in Grapes held the dustbowl up in this same way, connecting people and land with an ancient force that was being destroyed in California.

As I watch Tortuga slip into the haze, my thoughts move to one of those holistic nuggets in Sea of Cortez that pops up in the first chapter: "We take a tiny colony of soft corals from a rock in a little water world. And that isn't terribly important to the tide pool. Fifty miles away the Japanese shrimp boats are dredging with overlapping scoops, bringing up tons of shrimps, rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn't very important in the world. And thousands of miles away the great bombs are falling and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is. "

Being here on the empty Gulf with the turtle makes you remember this.

gilly squid expedition calamariToday we were treated once more to squid for lunch—stuffed calamares prepared by Oscar, the recipe follows below. Oscar's recipes are often more like procedures (or perhaps philosophies), so please experiment. After dusk we again sampled many small squid, mostly immature. So far, the size of squid and maturity states are reminiscent of last year's cruise. This is intriguing, because even though El Niño ended over a year ago, and two generations of squid have come and gone in this region, the squid are still small. It seems that recovery from El Niño is a multi-generational process with an uncertain ending—at least to us.

Tonight was also spent in experiments. We carried out our first successful test of squid escape-response under the conditions of low oxygen and temperature that the squid would experience in the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ). Results confirmed what we saw last year: When oxygen falls below 5 percent saturation or so, rapid escapes are significantly impaired. This decrease in performance ability fits in with observations based on pop-up satellite tagging—fast vertical movements appear to be greatly suppressed in the OMZ when measured by free-swimming squid.  Breathing and low-velocity vertical movements do not appear to be impacted by OMZ conditions in the wild or in the lab. This would suggest that the squid can carry out maintenance activities in the OMZ, perhaps including foraging on slow-moving myctophids. But a price for this capability would be an inability to escape from a foraging sperm whale or other predator that dives down to OMZ depths to hunt. I felt much like an OMZ-squid when I crawled into my bunk at 3 AM.

gilly squid expedition mapThree hours later at dawn, we are again sailing past Isla Tortuga and then Santa Rosalia on our way north. Glass-flat seas and mild air accompanied us past Cabo Virgenes all the way to Bahia San Carlos, a site explored by Steinbeck and Ricketts on their 1940 expedition. After dusk a warm, brisk wind started to blow down the long slopes leading up to the Tres Virgenes. It stopped as suddenly around midnight. This is a common phenomenon here, and one that undoubtedly is behind a recommendation to avoid the area in all yachting guides that I am aware of. But why worry about sudden squalls at night? Here on the New Horizon the wind does little except stir up some whitecaps in the moonlight as we sample squid. We catch our 30 in 15 minutes, and the squid are getting larger—more than 40 centimeters mantle length (compared to 25-30 cm in the Tortuga area) with many mature males and few mature females. But this picture is again not so different than in 2010; there are no large squid in this aftermath of El Niño.

The stretch of coast north of Santa Rosalia is extremely remote and about as untouched as one can find in the Gulf. I first managed to get here in 2004 on our retracing of the Steinbeck/Ricketts trip and have been back several times since. There are no roads leading to the sea for seventy miles or so, with San Carlos lying right in the middle of this stretch. I've heard of a rough jeep-trail that snakes past the volcanoes into this region, and one day I would like to make that exploration. But the view from the sea reveals some spectacular real, and a whole county could be developed on these gently terraced, volcanic slopes leading to the sea. I've been told in Santa Rosalia that a large tract of land near San Carlos is for sale. There is so much one could do with a good road… Luckily this area is part of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, so perhaps it will not be so easy to develop. Time will tell.

All night we cruise back and forth in a box-pattern making another acoustic transect.

Stuffed Calamares – Oscar P. Buan

Stuffing of a cleaned squid tube is a classic and versatile preparation. Ground beef was used for the example shown, but ground pork also works well. Other choices would be worth trying. As with a creative meat loaf, the stuffing can be as simple or complex as desired.


Mix ground meat of choice with salt, pepper and diced onion and stuff inside squid tubes

Pepper outside of tube, spray with cooking oil.

Bake at 350° F until done on the inside and golden brown on the outside.

Photo credits:

Tres Virgenes: W. Gilly

Isla Tortuga: W. Gilly

Stuffed Clamares: Ian Wilson, Colorado State University Map: Google Earth, adapted by W. Gilly