Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

beauty of santa rosalia

The Sea of Cortez is renowned for its great concentrations of whales in the late winter and spring. For Scott Cassell, it is the squid—more specifically Dosidicus gigas, or the Humboldt Squid—that draws him south to Baja California. “Anyone can swim in clear water and see pretty fish,” Scott began. “I’m first and foremost a research scientist and explorer, and I seek out difficult expeditions. This certainly qualifies. These squid, which can grow to 250 pounds (and perhaps much more), will try to attack and kill a human being in certain settings. I’ve been swimming with and filming these animals for thirteen years, they fascinate me. My desire is to spread the word about what these animals are like, and capture people’s imagination. I’m getting more and more people who want to dive with me to experience these squid—though I don’t see myself leading tours, as much as allowing people to tag along with me.” Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 1

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

The Humboldt Squid takes its name from Humboldt Current off Peru, where the animal was first discovered. Their nickname is Demonio Rojo or red demon. They can measure 7 feet and more, with their body (which contains the animals’ internal organs, including 3 hearts, and large eyes for night vision) making up a little over half their length, and their eight arms and two tentacles making up their remainder. Each arm has anywhere between 150–200 suction discs, each equipped with a chitenous ring that can have anywhere between 15–30 very sharp teeth. They capture prey—commonly including other Humboldt Squid—by wrapping their arms around the creature in question and biting and ripping at it with their chitenous ring teeth and beak. (Researchers have repeatedly watched hordes of squid viciously turn on a fellow squid which has been hooked by a fisherman or otherwise injured.) Their bodies, incidentally are not actually red; the squid’s skin is transparent and their muscle underneath is white with red pigmented tissue. They have thousands of chromatophors that open and close individually. When the chromatophors open they show the color red and when they close they show white. Santa Rosalia

 

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 2

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

Red demon squid range through much of the eastern Pacific, from the tip of South America to California and even on to Alaska. Numbers have proliferated in the Sea of Cortez in recent years; Scott and other scientists attribute this to the decline of predators like shark and marlin. Generally traveling in large schools of up to 1,000 specimens, red demons spend most of their time at depths of 600 feet or more. Scott puts this cephalopod in a most chilling perspective: “They are eleven times stronger than you, and are as smart as a dog or smarter. They’re a few feet away, and they’re wondering how they can eat you. It’s an alien-like encounter.” Santa Rosalia

Scott’s very first meeting was more likened to a mugging. “In short, I got my ass handed to me by some squid. I had heard about red demons while I was filming gray whales at Laguna San Ignacio. I went south to La Paz to dive under some of the squid-fishing fleets. Soon I was surrounded by squid. One smashed my camera into my face. Another wrapped itself around my head and yanked my right arm out of its socket. Meanwhile, a third bit into my chest, and the group dragged me down forty feet in a matter of seconds, rupturing my eardrum in the process. I managed to free myself and get to the surface. I still have scars on my throat and the side of my face from that encounter. I realized I had to figure out a way to be able to be close enough to film them while being protected. I was inspired by the armor the stormtrooper characters wore in Star Wars. I contacted Lucas Films, and they sent along the molds. I filled them with fiberglass (and later lined them with Kevlar), and they worked pretty well—that is, until the squid realized there was no armor on the knees and elbows. Soon after, I met Jeremiah Sullivan, a leading shark researcher, and together we developed the armor I use today, a variation on a standard shark suit that’s strong enough to deflect the animal’s beak.” Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 3

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

Gaining a firsthand understanding of the red demons is not something people do casually on their own. Scott has developed a crash course in interacting with Humboldts—the Squid School. “The first day when people come down to Santa Rosalia (where the squid are not fished and hence we can observe their natural behavior), we go out and have dinner to get acquainted. The next day, we give an interactive presentation that covers the Sea of Cortez and the anatomy and physiology of squid. I show guests film of the animals in motion, including some footage of what it’s like to be attacked. Next I introduce the armor. Guests then try it on for size, and we snap some pictures. Then we move on to explain our cable suspension system. Once you understand how the armor works and how we position ourselves in the water (usually at a depth of forty feet), you can focus on the behavioral aspects of this alien.” The protocol of squid diving is simple: Once divers reach forty feet and are clipped on to the suspension cable, someone on deck drops an attraction device (like a jig) to a depth of 500 or 600 feet. The jigger can feel when squid are on the device, and as the attractor is drawn toward the surface, the squid follow … and the show begins. Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 4

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

Assuming you don’t find yourself in the midst of a feeding frenzy, the chances of an attack are low; none of Scott’s guests has ever been victimized.)

To film squid at extreme depths, Scott has captured a red demon in the morning, attached a critter cam on a micro tether, and released the creature. At the end of the day he brings the animal in and retrieves the camera to review the footage. “With my squid cam, I’ve seen the delicate side of these incredible predators—the mating and courting,” he added. “They are very delicate, deliberate, and gentle. I was awestruck with the consideration these animals showed for each other. It was especially jarring, given that in the previous decade I’d only seen their problem-solving intelligence in order to feed, and their potential for ferocity.” Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 5

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

SCOTT CASSELL has been diving since 1977, accumulating more than 12,000 hours of dive time. He is a rated mixed-gas commercial diver, explorer-filmmaker, a 20-year veteran of Closed Circuit Rebreather technology, and a USCG qualified Submersible Pilot. He was the first person in history to film the giant squid in its natural environment, a 35 to 40 foot long animal weighing up to 1,800 lbs, free swimming in predatory behavior, which was debuted in the History Channel’s Monster Quest—Giant Squid: FOUND. Scott holds the world record for Longest Distance Traveled by a Diver (52 miles in 9.5 hours nonstop saturation dive). He used a diver tow-glider he invented to cover more range for open-sea underwater filming. An Advanced Diving Medical Technician Instructor (1 of 10 in the USA), Commercial Diving Instructor, and Hyperbaric Medical Technician Instructor, Scott taught for years at the College Of Oceaneering. He is also a PADI Instructor. Scott is featured as “on-screen talent” with MTV’s WILDBOYZ. His work with giant Humboldt Squid has been featured on over six Discovery Channel productions, The History Channel, Animal Planet, and the BBC, not to mention Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea DVD where his work on Humboldt Squid is featured on a bonus track. A U.S. Navy qualified Diving Supervisor and Dive Medical Technologist; Scott has worked in Maritime Counter Terrorism Operations for client companies where his secret operations often involved “High Risk” world regions. Santa Rosalia

Santa Rosalia. Mexico - photo 6

Santa Rosalia. Mexico

IF YOU GO TO SANTA ROSALIA

Getting to Santa Rosalia: Scott Cassell (and his partner, Shawna Meyer) base their expeditions out of Santa Rosalia, Mexico. Limited flights from the U.S. are available to nearby Loreto through Aeromexico (800-237-6639; www.aeromexico.com).

Best Time to Visit Santa Rosalia: For now, you need Scott to dive with the red demons, and they’re leading limited expeditions from March through October.

Accommodations in Santa Rosalia: The Las Casitas Hotel (www.santarosaliacasitas.com) is the accommodation of choice for expeditions led by SquidDiving.com.

Dive Shops/Guides in Santa Rosalia: Red demon expeditions are orchestrated by SquidDiving.com (760-280-9556; www.squiddiving.com), and generally consist of a five-day/four-night itinerary. Baja California certainly has attractions to hold you there longer.

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

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