Captain Hook’s Gallery: The Story of the Humboldt Squid
Visions of malevolent giant squid were first created in the minds of readers well over 100 years ago by Jules Verne in his classic novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Today, one thing is certain: there are far more giant Humboldt squid along both sides of Baja California and the California coastline than ever before noted in recorded history. Could this unusual situation be the ultimate realization of Verne’s literary dream of a time when giant squid would take over the seas? Over the past decade, the incredible proliferation of huge Humboldt squid in the waters surrounding the Baja peninsula might cause some observers to wonder.
While the smaller Pacific squid, Loligo opalescens, is the most prevalent species of Cephalopod found along the Pacific Coast, the giant Humboldt squid, Dosidicus gigas, is an entirely different character altogether; it is a tenacious brute with an extremely wicked reputation. The species can reach a length of over six feet, and is known for its aggressive, predatory nature. The Humboldt squid has incredibly powerful tentacles and excellent underwater vision, as well as a razor-sharp beak that can easily tear through the flesh of its prey …or that of an unsuspecting angler!
Since the Humboldt squid is also a prized food resource, there are some who don’t view the increasing numbers of the species as a negative event. Each year, hundreds of Baja’s commercial fishermen work in rough seas on small pangas to fish for these big squid. It’s no easy task, especially since the catch is very heavy and each squid must be caught on a hand line. The entire economy of many Baja fishing poblados, such as Santa Rosalia, depend upon the squid, with fishing and packing operations providing the majority of local jobs.
A few years ago, a team of scientists led by Dr. William F. Gilly, from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, left on a 73-foot fishing boat to retrace the historic expedition made by the famous writer John Steinbeck and his good friend Dr. Ed Ricketts back in 1940. The boat originally used, called The Western Flyer, was a 76-foot purse seiner which carried Ricketts, Steinbeck, his wife Carol, and their crew on a voyage that none of them would ever forget. The trip was chronicled in Steinbeck’s subsequent book, The Log of the Sea of Cortez.
Jon Christensen, a science writer and Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, traveled on the latest expedition to document the journey Steinbeck had taken over 60 years prior. Although over half a century separated the two voyages, aside from a progressive decrease in numbers, most of the various marine species that both exploratory groups observed were very much the same.
There was, however, one glaring difference. At absolutely no point in Steinbeck’s detailed account of his trip did he ever mention the giant Humboldt squid. On the other hand, Christensen recently noted that these large Cephalopods are now extremely common in the Sea of Cortez. As a matter of fact, they are at times so prolific that they have become pests to anglers who are trying to target other species.
Luckily, recreational anglers in Baja have also discovered the sport and table value of this monster-like creature, albeit usually as an alternative catch to more conventional and popular species. Those who target Humboldt squid generally do so during the dark of night. Multiple, premounted 300 to 500-watt lamps, preferably halogen, are used to draw the marauding beasts toward the boat. Once they have arrived, steadily chumming with chunks of mackerel or squid will usually keep them hanging around.
Although they can sometimes be caught with bait or on various fishing lures, serious ocean hunters who specifically target these nasty boys know that they need special equipment to get the job done most effectively. In addition to a 3 to 6 foot length of multistrand, 150+ pound test wire leader to prevent the Humboldt’s sharp beak from quickly separating the terminal tackle from the main line, a specially designed squid jig is also used. These lures have numerous pin-like prongs running up and down the body, which ensnare the tentacles of the giant squid as soon as they wrap around the artificial bait. They come in different sizes. The large ones to descend down to deeper squid and smaller ones work well when they are herding near the surface.
Nothing likes being ‘hooked’, and the giant Humboldt squid is no exception …but it has a lot more weight to throw around than most of the fish that you might commonly catch. It also possesses a large sack of ink that should be allowed to discharge boat-side prior to gaffing the squid and hoisting it over the rail. Once it hits the deck, cut away and discard its head and tentacles and then place the body on ice to maintain its quality. Please, however, observe this important word of caution; you should avoid all contact with the large beak at the center of the tentacles. Mangled or severed fingers are often the steep price that is paid by those who fail to do so!
On the other side of the coin, anglers who successfully fish for Humboldt squid are often happily rewarded with several pounds of gourmet calamari steak for the dinner table after the trip is over. For those who find themselves in this enviable situation but are not familiar with ways to prepare the delicacy, allow me to offer the following suggestion: first and foremost, do NOT overcook it! Overcooking squid and most seafood will result in it becoming tough, rubbery and inedible.
To enjoy a wonderful calamari dinner, simply dip a thick fillet into beaten egg and then dredge it in Japanese panko-style breadcrumbs. Lightly sauté the steak in a mixture of butter, extra virgin olive oil and minced garlic, turning only once, until both sides are golden brown. Serve with lemon wedges, your favorite fresh vegetable and rice or pasta on the side. It’s that easy.
I’m no marine biologist, but when it comes to figuring out the reason why the west coast of North American is seeing such a proliferation of giant Humboldt squid, I suppose that you don’t have to be one to realize that the ‘experts’ still don’t fully understand good ol’ Mother Earth. But, for all of our sakes, I certainly hope that sometime in the near future they do.
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