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 Chapter 37


The Undead


She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…

                                                                                                 Walter Pater


For several days the weather was perfect—warm, with just a little wind to keep any flying bugs away. And there at Este Ton, every day brought a week’s worth of fun and fascination. Hiking, kayaking, fishing, even staying in camp, I reveled in the delicious sense of not knowing what was going to happen next… or even what thoughts were going to invade my soul and shake up my complacency.

A question occurred to me. If we discovered that the devil created beer and all the rest of the material world, would we be obliged to worship and revere her as the creator?

Disturbed, I hiked around the bay, beyond the cross, to the headland that ends in the bay’s outer reef, where the pelicans liked to congregate. The rocks there were largely granitic with fascinating colorful sills and dykes infused with what looked like rose quartz and amethyst.




Dead or Alive


There at the base of a massively veined rock wall, curled up in a shallow crevice, I spotted what appeared to be a benign and cuddly sleeping black cat. Mindful of the young fisherman’s warning, I approached it cautiously, calling louder and louder. I threw a small stone which hit its rump. No reaction. Finally, I picked up a heavy, rounded piece of driftwood suitable for knocking out all of its benign lives if necessary and slowly turned the beast over.

It was a shock to see its wide-open greenish eyes staring back hypnotically, and the long sharp fangs poking from its mouth. The cat looked like a vampire reposed in its coffin, one of the undead—slowly, siren-like, beckoning me closer, a strange mix of cute and creepy, like one or two of the weirder women I’ve known. Finally, I understood the true meaning of the Mackintosh coat-of-arms with its Scottish wild cat above the warning motto: Touch Not the Cat without a Glove.

I now had a different perspective on the cross. If I were a fisherman camped at the bay and I’d seen a couple of these kitties prowling around at night I’d probably be sharpening stakes and erecting crosses all over the place.

“In all the time I’ve been here,” I reminded myself, “I don’t think I’ve seen one mouse or rat or ground squirrel… not a single rodent, dead or alive!” I was more than ever convinced that the cat invasion was partly if not entirely responsible.




The vampire cat


Closer to camp, I found the stiff and mummifying carcass of another cat—this one white with black blotches—in a crevice at the base of the low cliffs enclosing the north end of my beach. I tried to lever and force the thing into the open, but it was as firmly wedged as a cornered chuckwalla; and the more I pulled at it, the more the heavy sickly smell of death was released. Even though it was just forty yards from my tent, I decided to leave it where it was for now before I ended up with half a fetid feline in my hands.




Dead cat number three




Another wreck to ponder


Walking the stony, rocky beaches outside the bay, it was impossible to walk fifty feet without finding something fascinating, be it a fishing gaff, a piece of wreckage, or a pair of five-foot-long Humboldt squid washed up together.





Humboldt squid




Suckers and “teeth”


When Steinbeck and Ricketts entered the Sea of Cortez on the Western Flyer in 1940 they traveled extensively from Cabo San Lucas to the north end of Guardian Angel, from the peninsula to the mainland. Day and night they collected close to shore and observed and sampled the creatures of the open waters, comprehensively documenting their findings. In 2004, a group of biologists was able to retrace their journey “sailing with the spirits of John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts” in a similar vessel to highlight the changes that had occurred in the Sea of Cortez over the intervening 64 years. As one of the scientists reported, “We went everywhere they did. We saw squid every night, but Steinbeck never reported squid.”

William Gilly, a biology professor at StanfordUniversity's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, is arguably the preeminent authority on Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas).

And much of what little we know of their mysterious lives comes from the tagging work of Gilly’s laboratory, which has attached special tags recording both temperature and depth to Humboldt squid captured and released in Monterey Bay, California and the Sea of Cortez. Eventually, the tags pop off and float to the surface where they send a portion of their data to a satellite. If the tags are recovered from the sea, even more data can be accessed.

The Humboldt squid lives just one or two years, but even the most conservative estimates accept they can grow to six-feet-long and can weigh over 100 pounds. To fuel this phenomenal rate of growth, squid are fearsome predators, equipped to dine on just about anything big enough to get their attention or vulnerable enough to take a bite out of. They can outmaneuver virtually any fish and are capable of incredible bursts of speed over short distances by ejecting water from their body through a jet-like siphon.

They have two “feeding” tentacles covered in powerful toothed suckers that shoot out at arrow-like speed to seize their outmatched prey. When those tentacles retract, they pull their victims into the writhing grip of eight other tentacles similarly covered with suckers, all lined with sharp, shark-like teeth, perfectly designed for gripping and rasping flesh. Finally these powerful arms then draw the prey to the squid’s razor-edged beak just waiting to bite out fist-sized chunks of flesh.

Although they swim and hunt in groups of hundreds or more, there isn’t any great bond of affection between them. Any squid caught on a line or otherwise impaired is likely to be quickly swarmed and devoured. One study looked at the stomach contents of 533 Humboldt squid caught off Mexico and found a quarter of them had been dining on other squid. The larger squid, especially the females, were much more likely to be cannibalistic.

During the day, Humboldt squid are thought to descend to the oxygen deficient waters around 1,000 feet to 2,500 feet, perhaps to enter an optimal zone between oxygen starvation and staying out of reach of large predator fish, seals and whales that can only dive there for short bursts. Professor Gilly also points out that this “oxygen minimum layer” is replete with bioluminescent lanternfish, which the squid with their huge eyes are particularly adept at feeding upon. At night, they move much closer to the surface to feed.

Common in the Humboldt Current off the coast of South America, Humboldt squid have been dramatically extending their range in recent years. Gilly has been studying them for a quarter century, and knows of no reliable reports of Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez prior to the 1950s. Indeed, it was only in the 1970s that they began to appear with any kind of regularity. Today, they seem to have established themselves throughout the Sea of Cortez, all along the coast of California, and into the Pacific Northwest. A few specimens have been taken in Alaskan waters.

Global warming and elevated sea temperatures may be partly responsible, but Gilly and other researchers think it likely the Humboldt squid may be moving into niches left vacant by overfishing, and thriving there because of the pressure on populations of species that would normally feed on them. Certainly in the Sea of Cortez, populations of sharks, marlin, tuna, swordfish, wahoo, snappers, groupers, and other large predator fish have been drastically reduced by commercial and sport fishing.

Since the late 1990s squid have become an important fishery in Baja California, with over 100,000 tons landed in a good year. Much of it caught on hand lines and processed near Santa Rosalía, then exported to China, Korea, and other Asian markets.

Finding Humboldt squid washed up, often alive and flashing their remarkable maroon and ivory color changes is an increasingly common sight along the shores of the Cortez. Baja author Gene Kira recalls:


The first Humboldt squid I ever saw had washed ashore near Bahía de los Angeles’ Punta la Gringa camping area, and it was still alive. As I struggled to pull it up on the gravel, I noticed that I was leaving yellow hand prints on its reddish-brown skin. As it flopped about in its death throes, I discovered that I could write my name on its body with the tip of my finger, and the letters would remain there, flashing different colors, for several minutes.


Because of the presence of the squid as a food resource, more sperm whales are being seen in the Sea of Cortez than ever before.

Researching Humboldt squid one encounters two names over and over. One is Professor Gilly. The other is Scott Cassell. He offers a different expertise and a somewhat different perspective on these amazing animals. Following a Special Forces military career, Scott Cassell has been a commercial diver and underwater film maker for over 20 years. He has made hundreds of dives filming Humboldt squid and other dangerous marine creatures. His film credits include stock footage for numerous television programs and specials with such enticing names as “Shark Week” and “Dangerous Waters.”

Cassell first heard about the squid in 1995, while filming gray whales for a German television station in Laguna San Ignacio. Intrigued, he headed over to the Sea of Cortez to dive under the pangas of the squid fishermen in the southern Sea of Cortez. After a brutal and punishing first encounter he has been diving with and filming the “red devils” ever since.

On one dive, at about 200 feet, Cassell was attacked by a perhaps 200-300-pound monster squid which he caught on film for a documentary titled Red Intelligence. In his underwater work with Humboldts he says he has been either “tested or full out attacked about 80 percent of the time.”

He has developed equipment and techniques to deal with such attacks. “These precautions included: anti-squid armor suits; armor plating for the vulnerable parts of my mixed-gas rebreather; anti-squid cage; and back-to-back diving techniques.” And to “prevent being pulled down by a pack of squid” he advocates the use of steel cables to connect divers to their boats at all times.

Cassell can probably claim more close-up encounters with these squid than anyone else. He said, “Humboldt squid have approximately 1,200 sucker discs, each one lined with 20 to 26 needle-sharp teeth. This allows the Humboldt to attack its prey with more than 24,000 teeth at once. And nestled in its bed of eight muscular arms and two feeding tentacles is a disproportionately large, knife-edged beak similar to a parrot’s. But the Humboldt is much larger than a parrot...”

Cassell tells of some of his experiences.


When I arrived in Mexico for the dive, several fishermen told tales of how people had experienced violent deaths after falling in the water with these red demons… they would be pulled down and devoured in moments… I decided to perform the first dive alone, tethered to the support boat… I could hear the crew yelling to me: “They are right underneath you, look out!” A surge of excitement and dread filled me as I looked down past my fins. There were more than 20 giant squid right below me. Ranging in length from five to six feet, they hovered nearby just looking at me, studying me… they flashed from white to pink to bright red then back to white, all within a split second. It was beautiful! They looked like animals from another planet, totally unearthly. As I floated there transfixed, a large squid moved to within two feet and flashed again. Mesmerized by the strobe effect, I didn’t see that another squid was rushing in from my left. Bam! It hit me with a tentacular strike that felt like being hit with a baseball bat square in the ribs. Shocked by the power of the strike and unable to breathe because of a cramp in my chest, I turned to see what had hit me and saw four more squid headed toward me. The first came in so fast that I could barely track it with the camera, and then Bam! It struck the camera, which in turn struck me in the face. I was starting to feel like I was in a barroom brawl.


The monstrous squid remains motionless just ten feet away… I trained my camcorder on him and begin to record…. Then, with blinding acceleration, he lurches onto me with a powerful "thud crackle." He slams into my chest. The impact was incredibly powerful, knocking the wind out of me. His huge arms envelope my complete upper body and camera and I can feel my chest plate move as his beak grinds against it. The crackle and scratching of thousands of chitenous ring teeth against my fiberglass/kevlar chest plate is unmistakable.


[We] are 75 feet deep in the Sea of Cortez waiting for demons to appear. As we search the black water below our camera lights, a green glow begins to move toward us. Bioluminescence is signaling the approach of a shoal of Giant Humboldt squid rising to investigate us… I was there filming “Humboldt: The Man-Eating Squid.”


Scott is co-founder of Sea Wolves Unlimited, which offers squid-diving expeditions for those with a penchant for being suckered, shredded, and gnawed upon. But when seeking a “pure” encounter he prefers to dive alone.

Professor Gilly is skeptical of the man-eating label, and in spite of the opinions of Cassell even resists calling Humboldt squid dangerous predators. “They are equipped to do damage, but so is a dog,” he said dismissively.

“A lot of people want to make these things out to be mean and vicious and dangerous,” Gilly says. “To the best of my knowledge there’s no documentation that they’ve attacked anyone. Yes, there are divers who have let them grab on to them and drag them around. And yes, if there was a bad-ass squid who wanted to do damage, it could. When I snorkeled with them, one did come right up to me like it was going to eat [me], but then it just touched me on the hand with its tentacle.”

He adds “Of course there are other guys I’ve worked with who want to play up the sensationalism aspects and wear chain mail in the water.”

Cassell retorts: “Gilly is trying to make them out to be cute little ET’s… They are, in my opinion, the most opportunistic animals in the world, feeding on any type of fish they come in contact with and occasionally mammals… I’ve interviewed many people who have been attacked by these squids. There are also stories of disappearances, always unexplained, around the Humboldt squid. Always fishermen… I’ve actually seen a Humboldt squid attack a thresher shark twice its size, bite through the very tough skin of the shark and pull out a fist-size chunk of flesh.”

Cassell adds, “I’ve had my eardrum ruptured by getting dragged down from 45 feet to 75 feet; I’ve had my right arm dislocated by a squid grabbing my camera and yanking it; I’ve had 25 stitches from a particularly bad bite on my leg; and I’ve been smashed on the face more times than I can remember because they always seem to go for the camera when I’m looking through it.”

“I respect Gilly’s work in the lab,” he adds, “but he’s like a guy who has been on safari once and saw only lion cubs instead of big lions… I’d love to take him diving and hover about ten feet away while he gets binged by some big ones. E.T., eh? Cute, eh?” Cassell says its one thing to be “in with the babies… You really need to see the big guys.”

One man who would probably not question Cassell’s characterization is Alex Kerstitch. On a night dive in the Sea of Cortez in 1990, Kerstitch, a National Geographic photographer and biologist at the University of Arizona, was with three other members of a film team attempting to document the squids’ behavior. Squid heads were dangling in the water off the side of their boat and someone on board was hooked up to and attempting to bring to the surface a 14-foot shark. Alex Kerstitch was the sole still photographer; the others were shooting video footage and using more powerful lights which seemed to deter the approach of the squid. The divers were aware of the exhausted shark being lifted towards the boat as they kept an eye on the dozens of Humboldts rapidly flashing red and white beneath them. Suddenly one of the larger squid raced at the shark and snapped out an “orange-sized chunk from its head.”

Kerstitch was 30 feet below the surface when he suddenly had the sensation of his feet being locked together and pulled violently down. While he looked at the tentacles wrapped around his legs and the pulsing bursts of the large squid attempting to drag him into the black depths another large squid latched on to his head and neck, and began rasping and snapping at the only part of his body not covered with neoprene. He was down about seventy feet before he was able to fight his way free and kick for the surface trailing blood from neck wounds.

“They took his camera, his necklace, his dive computer and gave him some nice bites around the back of his neck,” Cassell said. “He knew he was a lucky man who had escaped death. Every time he told that story you could see the fear.”

Others who have extensive knowledge of Humboldt squid tend to take a more middle of the road view about the dangers of being in the water with them. Louis Zeidberg, a postdoctoral researcher studying Humboldt squid in the laboratory of William Gilly said, “I think I’m somewhere between what the armor guy feels and what Gilly feels… I think the primary difference is, when people go down and hang heads of squid off the side of the boat, then jig other squids and start a feeding frenzy, you’re going to have problems. These are cannibalistic animals. Like sharks, they go bonkers with blood and chum in the water.”

“We know so little about them,” explains Professor Gilly, “because [they quickly die in captivity] and spend 95 percent of their lives at depths well beyond those safely observed with scuba… We don't know where they spawn, and their eggs have never been found in the wild.”

But like most predators they can be tempted to where the food is and there have been several recorded sightings of schools of squid feeding on the surface, day and night. Those who fish for them are very familiar with the sight of squid following what’s left of their hooked colleagues right up to the boats. 

In spite of turning up north and south of their more normal relatively warm water range off Peru and Ecuador, all indications are that Humboldt squid have so far confined themselves to the west coast of the Americas. From Chile to Alaska, they have now spread into waters with temperatures ranging from 40 to 90º F.

No one knows why they have not yet moved further into the Pacific or around the tip of South America into the Atlantic. Perhaps the life cycle of the Humboldt squid is somehow associated with the great depths found where plates collide, subduct and spread. It seems like a fascinating subject for research.

Indeed, there is a spreading concern among US scientists and fishermen that the Humboldt squid firmly entrenching themselves along the west coast of North America are certain to dramatically impact a number of fisheries. A near twenty year study conducted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) recently lent credence to the claim.

And the same dramatic range extension is causing disquiet in the Southern Hemisphere. In October 2007, Chile’s Santiago Times reported the concerns of Federico Silva, president of Sonapesca (Chile’s National Fishing Society), that increasing squid numbers will have grave consequences for Chile’s fishermen. He refers to them as a “plague,” adding that, “The fishing industry in Chile has suffered a grade eight earthquake.” According to statistics from Chile’s Institute for Fishing Promotion, the estimated biomass of the commercially important hake species around her coasts was 1.5 million tons in 2002, but by 2004 the figure had been reduced to 272,000 tons.

However we characterize them and whatever their environmental impact, it seems that Humboldt squid are in the Sea of Cortez to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

As I studied the pair on the beach before me and gazed at their tooth-filled suckers and formidable beaks, I had to feel that there might be a lot more unexplained disappearances of swimmers and kayakers in the future. [For further advice on this, see Chapter 43, “The Nuts and Humboldts of Safe Baja Kayaking”] What should our response be? Certainly, it can’t hurt if we all develop a taste for calamari.

Now, if I were a just and loving God and I wanted to punish unpeaceable publicans and sinners and heartless zealots who would happily visit hell on anyone who happens to disagree with them, then I would definitely populate the old eternal lake of fire with ravens slowly ripping out livers, crazed feral cats siphoning out fang loads of boiling blood, and untold numbers of marine isopods hooking their victims with their fearsome little like feet and forever nibbling away at every tiny scrap of seared flesh… but the true kings and demons would be the voracious red devil Humboldt squid. A few of those guys fighting over your testicles and you’d definitely wish you’d behaved yourself.

But just to make sure, and being a deity diligent for justice and equality, I’d fix it that all new arrivals, men and women, would find themselves generously endowed with clumps of testicles and simultaneously be permanently afflicted with PMS and particularly painful menstrual cramps.

When I snapped out of my reverie, I realized that the ravens were searching for breakfast in the hills above the shore. Two of them buzzed one of the osprey nests, croaking and rattling away. The osprey pair replied with their panicky shrill calls. One partner stayed on the nest; the other tried to chase them away.

This time the ravens backed down and retreated, but it must be just constant vigilance defending their chicks and eggs from the powerful marauding beaks. The paired ospreys with their talons and sharp beaks can usually put up an effective defense, but some of the other nesting birds must suffer serious losses.

I still hadn’t seen a single vulture on the island. It was possible that the ravens had driven them off by simultaneously raiding their nests and taking over their niche, but ravens and vultures have been coexisting for ages on the peninsula, so it seemed much more likely that it was again the presence of the feral cats that had upset the equilibrium. Among turkey vultures one of the main tactics for nest defense has been vomiting on intruders, an approach that maybe doesn’t work too well with cats.  Whereas one can imagine ospreys, ravens, and even gulls mounting a very effective “mobbing” defense from any climbing cats.

A bird flicking its tail up and down on a large boulder ten yards offshore caught my attention. It made a distinctive “weet, weet” call, and its bill was fleshy pink with a darker tip.

My Golden Guide suggested it was a spotted sandpiper in its winter coat. “It bobs the tail up and down almost continuously …no breast spots in winter… call is a shrill two or three note piping.”

Female spotted sandpipers have really got it made when it comes to mating. After courting a male, she will lay a clutch of eggs, leaving them for him to incubate and raise, then fly off to court another male. As many as five males have been observed caring for the offspring of a single female.

On the way back to my camp, I climbed off the beach up one of the gullies between the dark conical hills north of Este Ton and there identified three more birds: a verdin, a Costa’s hummingbird, and a black-throated sparrow.

Passing through to a relatively flat open area, I took four or five really deep breaths and was spinning around looking up at the sky and mountains, praising the creator, saying “Oh thank you, the air is so clean.” As I uttered the word “clean” I put my foot down awkwardly and twisted my ankle. Unfortunately, my boot wasn’t laced tightly enough. The ankle was painful and weakened. I was hoping it wasn’t seriously damaged. Anything restricting my walking ability was a big concern.

It had come to me late in life—I was born to be outdoors, in motion. Not flying along on some noisy machine, but walking, paddling, plodding steadily, unhurried, relating to all around, getting there eventually. Experiencing a different kind of exhilaration.

The flying was going on between my ears—mind racing, strange thoughts, outrageous heresies, daring myself to trust and go further. All the while thinking, thinking, thinking. The equivalent of walking an island beach. Among the trash, endless fascinating finds. Throw the junk back. Keep in motion, keep exploring, keep seeking. Earn the right to sit and relax and enjoy that beer.