It was 8 p.m. The ocean looked inky black. A light haze enveloped a moonless sky, blotting out the stars. We stood on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean with one thing certain: We knew they were out there. But where, exactly, and could we find them?
Our elusive quarry. . . opalescent squid (Loligo opalescens). Each year from mid-December to March in Southern California, these squid migrate from their deep-water habitat into shallower waters to spawn and lay their eggs. This is what we hoped to see.
The spot we selected for our venture was Veteran’s Park in Redondo Beach, along the southwestern side of Los Angeles. The area has been a favorite haunt for squid previously and, as Shakespeare said, past is prologue.
Squid form their eggs within a protective milky white coating and produce an egg case about the size and shape of your index finger. They then lay this case within a larger egg mass, formed by many squid. All the eggs within the mass are anchored firmly in the sand.
Veteran’s Park is a good location because the underwater terrain is a sandy
bottom with a deep-water canyon that comes fairly close to shore, making it easy for the squid to migrate. Plus, the area has good parking, easy entry, and even showers to rinse off after the dive (for us, not the squid).
We geared up and got ready to go. After a final check of lights and cameras, we made our entry and descended. We kicked out 100 yards along the gently sloping bottom and, at a depth of about 40 feet, hit the slope that would take us down into what we hoped would be Squidland.
Suddenly out of the dark void of the deep, a school of SOMETHING came flying towards us, raced around us, and disappeared just as quickly as they had appeared. Probably just a school of fish, but it sure got the adrenaline pumping.
As we descended to the first shelf of the canyon, about 80 feet deep, we started shining our lights in all directions, hoping either to catch a glimpse of eggs already laid in the sand, or of squid doing the mating thing in the water column.
We had searched for no more than a few minutes when we hit paydirt. We’d found a beautiful mass of eggs, the white finger-like cocoons gently swaying with the surge. The egg mass itself was perhaps three feet around and held hundreds of egg sacs.
But we had no idea of knowing how old these eggs were. They could have been laid days or weeks earlier. Seeing the eggs is no guarantee of seeing the squid.
We moved on, encountering more egg masses in the 52º water. And then, as luck would have it, something caught our eyes at the edge of the range of our light. Bingo! Squid.
We came upon dozens of squid in a mating frenzy. The mating almost looks like an attack, with the male grasping the female tightly in his tentacles, fending off other males, and inserting his sperm within the female before releasing her and darting off. The female then forms the eggs into their protective coating, and firmly secures the egg case into the mass of other egg cases.
While we were watching all the mating frenzy taking place inches above the sand, I happened to notice a lone squid advancing towards the egg mass, with one tentacle raised like a periscope. But then, as I looked closer, I realized that what the squid was raising was not a tentacle, but an egg packet.
This was a female, forming the egg packet right before my very eyes, and moving to anchor it securely. As I watched in amazement, the egg packet grew longer and longer until it was complete, and then the female squid dove head-first into the middle of the egg mass, wiggled a bit, and then extracted herself, leaving the new eggs to the whims of the ocean.
The sad part about this is that, like salmon, the adult squid die after the spawning is over. But, in death, they provide food and sustenance to other animals (who amazingly don’t eat the eggs sacs; it’s thought the coating may be distasteful), leaving behind the eggs that will begin the cycle of life all over again.
After 40 minutes underwater, we headed back to shore and exited, thrilled and privileged to have witnessed this spectacular thread in the fabric of underwater life.