The food chain in the ocean is ruthless, anything smaller, slower or weaker than a predator fish is potential food. Which is why fully mature marlin are right up at the top end of the food chain. With the exception of large sharks and surface long lines, the marlin has very little to worry about, their size, speed and power asserts their position as an apex predator. And a marlin will eat almost anything, though their favourite food seems to be squid.
The squid is a boneless tasty morsel and marlin eat them in the thousands - but nature has a way of turning the tables.
In the dark depths of the Wanganellas the squid got revenge on a marlin.
We were hooked up to a quadruple strike right on dark, we concentrated firstly on the three anglers battling their fish stand up, while angler Jonny Elliot sat in the chair waiting for his turn to get stuck into his fish. About half an hour into the fight Jonny's fish appeared to have died, we had about 400 metres of line out and the steep line angle indicated the fish must be about 200 meters down. Striped marlin can't go below 200 meters, so that knowledge and the heavy dead weight on the rod told us the fish had died. It would simply be a matter of winching it up to the surface once the other three fish had been tagged and released.
Everything was going according to plan, two fish were tagged and the third was getting close when Jonny cried out, "I'm loosing a lot of line here!". But Jonny's cries got little attention from the crew as we knew the fish was dead and we suspected he was just loosing a wee bit of line while we drove forward on the other fish jumping away to our port side.
"I'm getting low!", this time Jonny sounded a little more panicked. Anglers tend to get a bit uptight when they know they have got more line to wind back in, besides we knew it was a stripey and we knew it was dead. "Yeah what ever Jonny - we'll be with you soon" was the nonchalant response as I reached for the leader on one of the other fish. The tag went in and a hearty cheer went up as we had conquered 20 marlin for the day. But through the cheers again was Jonny, yelling a rather different tune. "It's just about spooled me", this time some one took a look and sure enough the spool was dangerously low and steadily emptying. With no time to waste we cut the leader on the tagged marlin and backed down the line immediately while Jonny went to work on the Shimano Tiagra 80W, that was as empty as I had ever seen one on a fish.
The whole scenario had me quite puzzled, maybe the fish wasn't dead?, but even so I had never seen a stripey take line against that much drag over an hour into the fight? But then I didn't think it would be possible to catch 20 marlin, all over 115 kg in a single day, this place defied reason, so I just watched the fight unfold and waited for the conclusion.
As the boat backed down Jonny had to apply maximum drag just to regain line and he steadily filled the reel. Then with a hundred or so metres to go the load became a bit lighter. And what emerged into the deck lights was the ravaged remains of a striped marlin.
What Could have done it?
I have seen marlin attacked by sharks before but this was different, the flesh had been nibbled away down to the bone - sharks tend to tear large chunks of flesh away. Cookie cutter sharks were a possibility, they take small bites from large fish in the same way a mosquito takes blood from a mammal, more an inconvenience to the fish rather than an attack. But the cookie cutter has a very distinctive oval bite mark and these bites were different, besides it would take a hell of a lot of very hungry cookie cutters to devour a whole marlin.
So with sharks ruled out, my mind searched for an explanation. And it occurred to me, the marlin remains looked strikingly similar to something I had seen several times before.
Whilst broadbill fishing at the Three Kings our baits were often stripped to the bone by arrow squid, literally within seconds of hitting the water.
Whole skipjack tuna in the 3-4 kg range would be devoured in a pirana like feeding frenzy of squid, even as we retrieved the carcass squid would still be holding on desperately and their sharp beaks could clearly be heard grinding away at the backbone of the tuna carcass. To most people, squid conjure up an image of an animated, funny little sea creature - hardly a ferocious predator. But believe me these comical creatures are bad-arse little mothers. We would hook these hungry little squid on jigs, but as we retrieved the hooked squid it would come under attack from it's buddies and we would haul in the hooked squid with two or three more hanging on to it. The squid would be placed in the live bait tank for later use as broadbill bait, the trouble is they would firstly kill everything in the tank, cutting 1 kg mackerel clean in two with their sharp beaks. Then a battle royal would begin, the squid would turn on each other in a fight to the death. We had 20 live squid in the live bait tank and ended up with only one, the last squid standing would be riddled with bites and have missing tentacles. Like a battle field the bottom of the tank was strewn with the remains of the losers. I have often said that if I fell in the ocean it wouldn't be the sharks I'd worry about - it'd be the squid!.
Back to the attacked marlin - Every one stood and stared at the carcass that we dragged aboard, every one searching for an explanation, and I was the first to say it. "Squid.... and by the size of the bites - a big squid". The clearly visible bites were the same triangular shape as squid bites I had seen before, only much bigger. Also there were circular markings on the skin the size of coffee cups, we speculated that these were tentacle marks, made from the suckers. Did we have a close encounter with Architeuthis - the giant squid? We couldn't come up with another explanation - the awe and astonishment of what we had witnessed overshadowed our incredible days marlin fishing.
An expert opinion.
So after photographing and filming the marlin remains I cut some samples of the bites and markings from the marlin before dispatching it overboard. The on-lookers questioned my curious filleting of the carcass, "I'm gonna send these pieces of marlinto that squid guy from telly, ‘Steve O'shea', I explained". Every one knew exactly who I was talking about. Steve has been on the ‘Sunday' programme here in New Zealand but his fame is far more widespread, doing programmes for the BBC, National Geographic and even German television. Currently Steve is involved in making a multi million-dollar documentary series with Discovery channe,l as cameras follow Steve on his quest to capture a live juvenile giant squid and raise it in captivity.
Steve (who's name in print should read ‘Steve O'shea Bsc, Msc (Hons), Phd) has held senior management and marine scientist positions at NIWA, and MER as well as senior research fellow at AUT. But it is Steve's passion for squid and his mad scientist like enthusiasm that has endeared him to the public.
Once home a quick search on the internet for ‘Giant Squid' revealed numerous sites, most having one thing in common, the name Steve O'shea. I found an e-mail contact and sent off the details of our encounter, moments later I got a phone call from a very interested Steve O'shea.
We arranged for the samples and video footage to be sent to Auckland University of Technology for analysis by Steve.
Steve's first reaction watching the footage was similar to ours, one of astonishment (he even used some of the same colourful expletives we did) He then got down to the analysis and he almost immediately ruled out a shark attack. He then got to work with a giant squid beak matching it up with the bite marks. "What ever it was really got stuck in he said"
He said it could perhaps have been a pack attack from Diamond back squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus) or another ferocious variety,Taningia danae. These squid travel in packs and grow to two metres long. "Given the scratches on the flesh of the marlin it was most likely Taningia, because Taningia has hooks". Steve describes Tanangia in his own words as an "eight armed seriously evil squid, a.k.a the lightening squid of death from hell!"
Steve said it was unlikely that it was Architeuthis because the diet of the giant squid is small fish, squid and prawns. And the colossal Squid (Mesonychoteuthis) has a strictly antarctic distribution.
While the giant squids diet is of small fish and it wouldn't normally take on a marlin, we must consider that the marlin was dead and very few creatures in the ocean would refuse a large, fresh and easy meal. The same can be said for arrow squid, their diet is normally small fish but attach a large tuna to your line and a single squid will eat the dead or dying tuna. And is a pack of squid capable of dragging the dead marlin against the considerable amount of drag we were applying?
What we can say is that it was most likely a squid or a pack of squid. Whether it was a case of the little squid saying "I've had it with you marlin, I'm gonna get my big cousin to smash you bro!' or a pack attack from the ‘seriously evil' Taningia remains inconclusive.
What I do know is that I will never look at squid in the same way again.
Footnote. I'd like to thank Steve O'shea for his help and if you see anything ‘Giant Sqidish', odd or sensational when you're out on the briny Steve is very open to discussing anything - anytime. Steve can be contacted at AUT ph:(09) 916 9999 extn 8244 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
ALSO! The TV cameras we're rolling as the above story unfolded so tune into ‘The Fishing Show' later this year on Sky Sport and Prime and see for yourself just what can happen out in the wide deep blue.