Killer Squid -The Story Behind the Image

I am very excited to be featured in Outside Magazine’s 40th anniversary book, The Edge Of The World, with a photo of one of my most memorable and scariest jobs.  A shoot I wasn’t sure I was going to come back in one piece for an article that was published in 2010 called “It’s Hard out Here for a Shrimp” by Tim Zimmermann.

When Rob Haggart, Photo Editor at the time of Outside magazine, called me, to see if I wanted to photograph Humboldt squid in Mexico, my immediate reaction was “YES!”   But later did some research and learned the truth about Humboldt squid.  I started questioning my decision when I read things like:

After reading all of these discomforting facts I decided to contact Scott Cassel, our hero and subject of the story who I nicknamed “Squid Dundee.”  He was the diver and the person who had had the most encounters and field studies of these elusive and mostly unknown creatures.   I wanted some reassurance that I was going to be OK.  I asked what I should be expecting from these dives.  

This was his reply:

Hi Paolo,

Good talking to you yesterday!  My team will be together Monday for a planning session and will email you and Tim [the writer] the dates available.  Then all we have to do is…  find the most elusive “giant” Humboldt squid, attract them into a feeding posture, get into the water with them so they can slam their 100-300 pound bodies, lined with 30,000 teeth, into us (at up to 20 knots) in order to engage that fist-sized beak that can gouge out an orange-sized chunk of flesh every 2.5 seconds.Easy enough.

Take care!


Was Scott trying to scare the crap out of me or was I about to get myself into more trouble than I could handle?  Scott was a special operation vet, built like a brick, and he loved to be the tough guy.  One of his most memorable phrases to me was, “I killed way more people underwater than anywhere else.”  For Scott all that stuff was fun.  For me? I just wanted to see a giant squid underwater.  I had dreamed of it since I was a kid.  How could I pass up this opportunity?  I took the job with the expectation of getting hurt, but knowing that most likely I wouldn’t  die.  That seemed like a good goal, and hopefully I’d get a shot while I was at it.

I flew to Mexico with my trusty Montana assistant, who is not a water person and was not going to come to my rescue. I have never seen him take his shoes off, not even in the Virgin Islands.  With a knot in my stomach, I was reminded of what I had just gotten myself into.

Scott turned out to be a fun guy with a good sense of humor.  Ready to make jokes about himself.  Not what I had expected, I liked the guy immediately.


The plan was to motor out to the middle of the ocean, to reach Mexican fishing fleets that were fishing for the squid.  Then, tied to metal cables, we would dangle underneath the boats like bait and wait for the squid to come to us.  The Mexican captain looked at us shaking his head, “Gringos Locos,” and motored us on our way.  That’s right, crazy gringos…


Scott was putting on his special metal mesh suit and getting his scuba gear ready when I asked,  “Where is my metal suit?”   Scott paused, looked at me with a smirk and said, “Sorry, we don’t have one for you, you’ll be alright.”


I started putting on my neoprene wetsuit wondering how easily they’d be able to take a chunk out of my ass.  I started thinking about the options I had.  Refuse to dive until I had a metal suit?  Fly back to Montana and quit in the middle of the assignment?  Tell Scott I was too scared to go?  What would I tell Outside?  I didn’t make it this far to quit and be a wuss…  And this was the opportunity of a lifetime.  How many people can say they dove with the deadly Humboldt squid?   It’s like if you had the opportunity to be thrown in a cage full of lions, would you say no?  Well… that’s not a great analogy, but close enough.  I rigged up my tank, my regulator, my BC and checked my cameras.  I had two cameras in case one got ripped off by the bandits.  I had them strapped on me like a true gladiator.  I was ready for the fight, and I’d reached the point of no return.

We plunged in the water, and Scott hooked the metal cable to my tank, looked at me and gave me the OK sign.  I replied OK.  We started descending into the darkness.  Scott kept a good eye on me as he carried his camera and light, that gave me comfort.  Even though he had a macho attitude, he dove like a professional.  He was a professional.  By then we had lost the writer, Tim.  He was having technical difficulties as it wasn’t a simple dive with everything that was happening.  The cable, the current, big hooks swinging by.  He never dove again for the rest of the trip.  As we reached the end of the cable I looked around and felt strangely peaceful.  I had made the decision to be there and now I was just there waiting for it to happen.

The first encounter was the most memorable.  A school surrounded me. I don’t remember where Scott was.  I was maybe just too focused, but he had to have been there.  They were swimming fast and suddenly just stopped, like they had hit an invisible wall and started flashing from bright red to white, like a strobe.  They looked like aliens.  I can’t say I felt any fear.  Then like a missile, a squid launched himself at me and stopped in front of my mask flashing from white to red .  Like a strobe light, its tentacles dancing like menacing fingers trying to mesmerize me.  I think he was trying to tell me that he was about to kick my ass but none of that registered.  I was frozen, not in fear but in awe.  I didn’t even take a picture.  He was there only seconds and then they all vanished. I finally remembered why I was there and managed to snap a shot.


After that encounter I decided I was going to be OK and started taking pictures.  All the fear vanished and then I was in the zone.  I vaguely remember a squid wrapped around my fin, as I was shooting, but it didn’t feel aggressive, it seemed like it was motivated just by curiosity.   And I just kept firing away for three days until I felt I had the shot.  I still wonder if the sea monsters that Humboldt squid are portrayed to be are truly that menacing and dangerous.  Maybe I just got lucky. One thing is for sure, I’ll never forget the experience.  

To see more images on my website check out my underwater page here

To read the article on Outside Magazine click here


THE CHANGE: What is happening to Montana?

I moved to Montana from San Francisco in 1999 for a change of lifestyle. Tired of traffic, the crazy housing market, too many people and just living the life of a city rat. I was born a city boy and wanted to try something different.

Being able to park in front of my Bozeman house seemed odd. I was used to aggressively hunt for parking and finding a spot within 10 blocks from my house was a damn score. Not having to worry about rush hour, being able to buy a house for under 150K, all this seemed just way too easy. The quality of life suddenly skyrocketed. 

I don’t deny that the year I moved to Montana I made a whooping one thousand bucks. And that wasn’t for the month, it was for the year. I had trust that it would have worked out but mostly what I knew in my heart was that I couldn’t have lived the city rat life any longer. Better poor than miserable.

Now, 18 years later, I find myself being chased by the issues I had in San Francisco.

Maybe the fact that the population keeps growing and nobody talks about how scary it is. Or the fact that internet has allowed people to work remotely and they chose to live closer to nature but Montana is not the same place I moved to.

Rush hour in Bozeman has become a reality, real estate is going berserk and the seclusion and solitude I was seeking and need seems to be more and more difficult to find. 

This weekend we took the drift boat and fished and camped in a few lakes. Saturday night, while trying to find a camp spot, we came across all these regulations that require to camp in designated areas. We all felt robbed of our freedom as we used to be able to camp anywhere in Montana. Find a dirt road in State Forest land and pitch a tent. All campsites were full, of course, and at 11pm we gave up trying to find an empty “legal” spot and camped illegally in a day use area.

I am afraid that this will be the future of Montana. Just like is happening in places like California, Oregon and Washington where you have to make reservations to camp. Is there a way to stop it? Maybe the apocalypse. 

TOTAL SOLAR ECLIPSE, here is why everybody should experience it once in their lifetime.

My friend Ryan invited me to drive 3.5 hours south to Idaho to see the solar eclipse.  I pictured the traffic, the drive and my recollection of a solar eclipse I had seen in the past that didn’t impress me much.  My response was “not interested”.

Then he told me it was a camping event his friends started organizing two years ago.  Reserved a whole campground and a bluegrass band playing the night before the eclipse.  It was going to be over 200 people coming from all over.  Was getting more interesting but still “not interested”.  Then he said there would be 9 people cooking and I didn’t need to know more.  I love food and there is nothing like good barbecued food, I packed my bags.

I really didn’t go for the solar eclipse, I went for the food, the camping and hanging out with friends.  Unaware of the fact that what I had seen in the past was a partial eclipse maybe 95% coverage.  I can barely remember it and nothing really to write home about. Who cares to see another…

However, what I was  about to experience was a total solar eclipse.  100% coverage. Now, there is the difference and a big difference and seeing it happen was one of the great experiences of my life.  Now, the day after the eclipses, I can’t stop thinking about it.

At around 11, the moon started covering the sun.  It was a much slower process than I had anticipated.  A kid (or a father, it was unclear) built a cool contraption to see the eclipse projected on paper.  Telescopes, cameras with telephoto lenses and of course the eclipse glasses started coming out.

  Hannah, who organized the event, later told me, she had gone to see the solar eclipse in Egypt with her dad in 2005.  She figured it was going to be a bunch of nerds, going to see a nerdy thing, and just a family trip being nerds  However, she was so blown away by it, that 12 years later she managed to gather over 200 people to share the experience with.  Her father taped a photo he took in 2005 and I stood there watching it, not really understanding or predicting how it would truly feel to see it in real life.  

We projected, with binoculars, the eclipse on our hands.  We watched through the eclipse glasses and camera lenses.  I was entertained, nothing more, maybe a little bored, just thinking we were a bunch of nerds doing nerdy things.   My feelings were to be proven wrong pretty soon.  



People started finding prime locations to see the eclipse.  Kids played games, adults chatted as the sun slowly disappeared behind the moon.  The 30% eclipse didn’t feel much different from the 80%.  It was still pretty bright and you could only see the eclipse with your glasses.  An hour had gone by and again I was not that impressed.  

Then things started to rapidly change.  It must have been at 95% that the light started to become eery.  After this point I lost track of time.  This weird feeling in my gut started taking place.  My body and consciousness was fighting to make sense of  this loss of light.  It was not right, it was not the right time, I needed that light.  I felt anxious, dizzy, my heart started racing.  I suddenly realized that I was by myself.  I had distanced myself from everyone to take pictures.  

I also realized Argo, my dog, was off leash and he was not by me.  Everyone else had leashed their dogs and I remembered reading animals could freak out.  Where is Argo?  My hands started sweating and then it started becoming cold.  I felt the cold air hit me like a slap, I didn’t want to be cold. Glacial darkness was taking over and all I could think off, was that I wanted the light and heat back.  I took a deep breath and had to tell myself “relax, it’s all right, is just an Eclipse and it’s about to get really dark but light will be back.  Trust me”  I held my breath knowing that the sun was about to disappear behind the moon, leaving a black, menacing hole.  Will I freak out like some animals do?  I felt unease, like the end of the world was about to happen and I was not ready for it.  “Breathe Paolo, breathe… Is not the Apocalypse” 


In the middle of the eclipse, before it got dark, I pulled out the drone with the idea of flying it to take photos of everyone looking up after the eclipse.  We had planned to take a staged group photo after the fact.  “You are not going to fly that drone during the eclipses are you?  We want to hear the sound of the crickets when it gets dark” someone sitting by told me.  As the sun disappeared behind the moon, it turned into a black hole radiating around its edge with glowing light, as if it was on fire, it felt as surreal as anything I have ever experienced.   The tension had built up so high that everyone cheered in abandonment.  People cried, people laughed.  It was a loud cheer, a cheer I had never heard before.  Not what you would experience at a concert, football game or political rally.  It was the cheer of awe, marvel, appreciation, astonishment and relief.  Maybe the crickets had sang during the total eclipse but all I heard were 200 people that had just been blown away by the experience. When the sun peeked back out it was an explosion of light and people started clapping.  Yes, we all wanted that sun back and I felt thankful and relieved to see light again.   

In that short moment, in this majestic expression of the natural world, I realized how little and vulnerable we are.  How we take so many things for granted, like having a sun rising and setting every day.  I felt thankful for being alive, a gift given to us by nature and only nature.  We tend to forget how important the natural world is to us and how insignificant we are to it, yet we keep abusing it.   Will there be a day that nature will have enough of us, ungrateful buggers, and not give us the gift of a rising sun?  How far can we push it?   Seeing that sun disappear and reappear made me feel even more appreciative for mother nature and I felt fortunate to live a lifestyle close to her, with appreciation and respect.  

Now, does anyone wonder what happened to Argo?

Argo was having his own Solar Eclipse experience.