TAMUG Doctoral Student Helps Reel in a Rare Catch

July 30, 2009

July 30, 2009 started off just like most days for Alyson Azzara aboard the vessel Gordon Gunter. A Ph.D. student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Marine Biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston, Azzara had been at sea for weeks with a crew from the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center and the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service. They were conducting an annual marine mammal distribution survey for the Gulf of Mexico focused on sperm whale population distribution. An added objective was to study the distribution and density of sperm whale prey. Azzara was on board as a member of the acoustic survey team to help locate and track variety of marine mammals, and planned to use that information to compile a methodology for improving survey techniques that incorporate visual, acoustic and net trawl for data collection. She was especially interested in finding out what sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico were and were not eating.

While some of the crew had mentioned hopes of catching a Giant Squid during the expedition, expectations weren’t too high. The Gordon Gunter was trawling at more than 1,500 feet at the time of the catch and on one of their last trawls for that leg of the expedition. As they pulled up their nets, they knew they’d caught something monumental. “It’s this mythological creature,” said Azzara. “It was so awe-inspiring and amazing.”

Azzara was the crew member serving as the expedition’s “squid identifier.” Photos were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for an initial confirmation that the team had in fact collected a Giant Squid. By the following day, they had their confirmation, and some pretty exciting news. A Giant Squid hadn’t been officially documented in the Gulf of Mexico since 1954 when one was found floating at the surface near the Mississippi Delta. Giant Squid were rumored to live in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but proof was minimal.

The Giant Squid, which measured in at 19 ½ feet and more than 100 pounds, had to be sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to be fully measured and weighed. “The scales on board couldn’t accurately weigh something that large,” said Azzara. “We ended up laying it out on the back deck to measure and photograph it. It was like putting a giant puzzle together.”

Azzara was ecstatic about the find, for many reasons. She mentioned looking forward to the day when she can take her children and grandchildren to the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History to show them the specimen and show off what she helped catch. For now though, “[we] can now use this to request more funding for further research. We can take [the squid] and say ‘Hey look, we can do this research’,” said Azzara.

She hopes to use her research and marine biology studies to integrate law and science through management conservation. Azzara plans to develop methodologies on resource awareness and encourage local communities to care about resources and how to protect them. She graduated from Texas A&M University in 2006 with a degree in Biological Oceanography where her graduate thesis was on sperm whale dive behavior in the Gulf of Mexico. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biology from Temple University.