Talking to Squid

When I was about sixteen, I came home from school. “I think I have a new hobby,” I told my mother when I walked into the kitchen.

“What is it?” she asked me.

“Evolutionary biology,” I said. She’s never stopped laughing about this. Neither have I. It’s a strange hobby.

In the years since, I have labelled a few more of my strange hobbies, and occasionally use them to describe myself, as I have on the front of this site.

The first, as I’ve said, is evolutionary biology. This is maybe more than a hobby as I begin my second semester in a Masters program in animal behavior. I will never stop seeing small dinosaurs nesting in the rafters, or feathering from branch to branch, or cooing and chuckling in Central Park. It is good to remember that the dolphins I aim to study had legs once. I wonder where the swishing tail began.

The second is listening to heartbeats. Whether it be your dearest loved partner, or your housecat, or an African elephant, we vertebrates all have this drumming blood pump, our hearts. It is like a clock ticking in the chest, and every one sounds different.

The final of my strange hobbies gave me the name of this site: talking to squid.

The only reason I have ever had contact with squid at all is that my grandparents raised me to love the ocean. They are both experienced scuba divers. As early as I could hear them, they told me stories of great green eels long as you were tall, scuttling colorful crabs, toothy barracuda—the treasures one could find if you brought air underwater. When I was ten years old, I got my scuba certification and I went with them for the first time.

Throughout my teenage years, my grandparents took me with them into the sea. Scuba diving is very like being an astronaut: armed with equipment that allows you to take a piece of your own atmosphere out into a space that would otherwise kill you, you learn to move in three dimensions. The biggest difference was that I met aliens. I found that 8-foot-long green moray eel under a wrecked boat when I was twelve, his great jaws opening and closing as he gulped water. The barracudas changed color from steel black to burnished silver as they approached to investigate the bubbles of my breath with lidless eyes. I found my first octopus, tiny, startled, and quivering, hiding under a dock in the ink-black of night. The cephalopods were my grandmother’s favorite. We always counted on her to find the octopus’s shadowy den. And the first time she found me a school of Caribbean reef squid, we snorkeled to the surface where my grandmother squealed with delight.

“Don’t move too fast, or you’ll scare them!” she told me with glee. We looked down through the glassy surface towards the flock of seven squid, vaguely purple and hanging motionless in a row.

“You see how they’re arranged by size?” Grandma asked me. The squid were hard to find, but if you ever saw one you had only to look a few feet to its left to find another. They traveled in small groups of six to eight, always hanging above the reef in a line, and yes: they were always arranged by size. Smallest on the left, largest on the right. We once found a newborn school of forty or fifty tiny baby squid, and even they obeyed the rule: on one side, the largest young squid the length of my thumb; on the other, the tiniest runts scarcely longer than my pinky fingernail.

The squid were always skittish, and I was a young and flailing aquanaut. They saw my wavering and fled. If I got close enough to a individual squid, it would blanch white—the color, I assume, of squid panic—and toss a cloud of flimsy brown ink in my face as it darted off. But as I got older, I learned to fly. Divers call it neutral buoyancy: learning to balance your weights and breath so that you neither sink nor float. The years brought me from roly-poly swimming into complete stillness. There is nothing more peaceful in my life than perfect suspension underwater. I learned to use my breath to move: breathe in to rise, breathe out to sink. I began to breathe more, almost, for movement than for nourishment. Like the squid, I had learned to hang motionless in the water column. Rather than chasing, I watched.

It was in this way that I finally approached the squid. A small flock of four appeared, vaguely purple and arranged by size, near the sandy ocean floor. I adjusted my buoyancy and breathed carefully. Over the course of many minutes I drifted with the currents of waves towards the nearest squid. She was the length of my forearm, mantle smooth and tentacles limp, violet and transparent, with one huge, enigmatic eye looking towards me. She did not draw away as I drifted within feet of her.

Rather, after several moments, the squid drifted towards me, until she had settled in suspension inches away from my diving mask. I did not move. This close, I saw the riot of movement and color just beneath her surface. Dark markings on her skin obscured chromatophores underneath. As I watched, tiny spots of indigo, purple and steel grey emerged, grew, and faded across the squid’s mantle. She shone with a pearly iridescence that was first pink, then faintly greenish. A pixelated, peacocked animal. A squid had never come close enough to show me these details.

As the squid hovered before my eyes, I watched the huge, flat plate of her eye. I realized it was moving in tiny articulations. I watched muscles work in the sockets, and the eye tilted—toward me. There is no way I will ever prove this, but I immediately wondered if the squid was looking at me. The eye moved very slightly, back and forth, as a partner’s eyes in conversation will scan your face. For many minutes, I breathed for stillness and scarcely moved. She stayed. We watched each other. Finally, a different squid approached us. It made stuttering, dance-like motions, and pulsed color across its skin hypnotically like a strobe. I wondered if it was agitated. I will never know. The two squid moved slowly off together. I broke my stillness and swam away to join my grandmother.

I have only practiced my favorite of these strange hobbies once. No other squid I’ve met has been curious or fearless enough to let me come this close. It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say that the squid and I were talking—but they are cephalopods, the brainiest of the invertebrates. That one brave squid gave me the chance to take a close look at an alien species. I will always wonder if she was looking back at me.

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