Monday, October 19, 2009

Meet the red devil of the sea — and bring your fork

An immature Humboldt squid is stranded after washing up on a beach near Tofino, B.C. (Below) A naturalist's squid is a gourmand's calamari. Photos by Josie Osborne.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 19, 2009


A foray into Josie Osborne’s home freezer is an expedition filled with peril.

Ice cream cartons and organic beef share frozen space with packages of questionable provenance.

In one rests a fine example of Ixoreus naevius, a Varied Thrush that came to an unfortunate end by crashing into the window of her Tofino home. Another holds a Selasphorus rufus, a hummingbird whose magnificence is greater than its size.

More ominously, a bag is labelled BIOLOGICAL SAMPLE.

Yet another tub is filled with the contents scraped from the stomach of a sea creature with a notorious reputation.

The latter will soon make a transcontinental journey to a keen undergraduate studying marine biology at the University of Guelph.

Ms. Osborne is a naturalist with the Raincoast Education Society, introducing adults and schoolchildren to the wonders to be found at the far edge of Vancouver Island where the rainforest bumps against the ocean.

Of late, an odd phenomenon has sent her down to the waterfront on several occasions.

The sandy beaches speckling the peninsula on which Tofino rests have become the unlikely final resting spot for a cephalopod only spotted in these waters in recent years.

Washing up have been dozens of Humboldt squid. Alias the jumbo squid. Also known as the jumbo flying squid. Feared by the Spanish-speaking sailors of the Pacific from Mexico to Chile, who call it diablo rojo (red devil).

The carnivorous invertebrates are especially aggressive when feeding, known even to attack and eat their own. Adding to their otherworldliness is an ability to alter their skin colour from deep purple to white and red.

“They’re grotesque,” Ms. Osborne said, “but fascinating.”

Fearsome in reputation and elusive in practice, the squid has long held a place in folklore, appearing in Moby-Dick and attacking the submarine Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. To this day, the bloodsucking squid of myth serves as a foil in pop culture, whether as a metaphor for Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone magazine, or as the creature wrecking a beach party in an inane beer commercial.

The interest in something so repellant is understandable.

“They’re creatures of the deep,” Ms. Osborne said. “We don’t know too much about them. They’re ugly. They have really large eyes that look much like ours. That sort of freaks us out and fascinates us at the same time.”

The shoreline has long been her playground, beginning in a childhood spent exploring nature’s wonders at Saratoga Beach, north of Courtenay. Her early curiousity led her to the University of British Columbia, where she earned a science degree before completing a master’s in resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University.

In a video posted on YouTube, she holds up one of the unfortunate creatures, whose body is almost half her own height. Her curly hair blows in the wind, a Botticelli figure clad in fleece and rubber boots.

The bodies of adult Humboldt squid can grow longer than two metres, so the ones beaching in these waters are likely juveniles. The reason remains a mystery. Witnesses described the squid being caught in strong surface currents as they pursued prey close to shore. In any case, it is not an unknown phenomenon for them, as they are also known to beach in their usual waters farther south.

Wayne Barnes, a Tofino photographer, captured images of a black bear carrying off a dying squid, an unusual meeting of two species made possible by warmer ocean currents.

Beachcombers need to be aware of the sharpness of the Humboldt squid’s beak, as well as the hooks in the tentacles.

Even in death, they are disturbing.

“As they rot on the beach, they stink,” she said. “It’s sweet and putrid. Smells like decaying meat.

“I’ll never forget the smell. Once it gets inside your nostrils, it’s there forever. Ugh.”

The ugliness of the odor is matched by the unsettling sight of thousands of sand fleas working at the decaying flesh. When approached, the tiny amphipods scatter en masse. She says the scene reminds her of a scene from a zombie movie.

At the same time, what is a squid to a biologist is calamari to a gourmand.

For Thanksgiving dinner, she and her husband invited 30 friends to a holiday meal with the theme of local foods — turkey, Brussel sprouts, a chanterelle mushroom pate, all from Vancouver Island.

The naturalist also had in mind an appetizer.

She had picked a stranded squid from the beach (“on its last legs, or should I say arms”), brought it home, placed it in the freezer. Turns out all that is required to scavenge a squid is a recreational fishing license.

On the feast day, the squid thawed in her bathtub. It was skinned and gutted, before being sliced into strips. Dipped in olive oil, the squid bits were cooked quickly on a very hot grill before being served with a squeeze of lemon.

Ms. Osborne pronounced it delicious. Sweet, like crab meat.

She has an indulgent, but wary, husband.

“He’s really careful when he picks through the freezer,” she said.

A cook with a weakness for ice cream, he avoids his wife’s labelled containers.

The bag designated BIOLOGICAL SAMPLE? Ms. Osborne has practiced an understandable bit of domestic deception to save for herself a frozen dairy treat. She likes ice cream, too.

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