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


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