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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Squid Invasion!

Animal Planet showed a program last night called Squid Invasion, which is a doubly apt title. It's meant to be about the Humboldt squid, a rather remarkable creature, which has recently begun aggressively expanding its territory from the Sea of Cortez where it originated, all along the West coast of the Americas from Alaska to Chile. The second sense in which the title is apt is that the squid themselves are being invaded - by humans!

Seriously, this was probably one of the most ridiculous "documentaries" I have ever seen. I learned four legitimately interesting facts: a Humboldt squid grows from a fertilized egg to a fully grown, 5-foot, 100-lb adult in about a year; the Humboldt's chromatophores look to be different from those used by the mimic octopi I've seen; and the Humboldt is aggressively expanding its territory from its previous niche into a much larger area. The fourth was a neat bit summarizing the surprisingly short development of a squid - not only do they mature fast, they develop fast from the get-go, from egg & sperm to fully functional (if diminutive) hunter in a matter of days (this bit alone justifies the science/biology tags - and a good thing, too, because things are about to go downhill). These are all fine and good, but there was quite a bit more in there, and it wasn't what I would call "educational."

For one thing, the humans talking on the program described the squid as "alien" at one point, and one guy even shoved an endoscope into a live specimen and referred to it as "probing," then laughed as the squid hurried away after he released it back into the water. Did he not consider that the squid might be swimming for its life after being abducted and probed? Also, during the probing, the squid's three hearts were beating "fast," which I am hesitant to quote because I don't really have a frame of reference here - but it seems not to have occurred to our host that an unexpected endoscopy might be a stressful situation for a subject, perhaps resulting in an elevated heart rate. But I don't know, I'm not a doctor. What do you think?

For another thing, the same guy who probed the squid also attempted to do a nocturnal filming with a night-vision camera to catch the squid behaving "naturally," i.e. without knowing they were being observed. As soon as he was in the water, he started getting attacked, so Mission Failed right there. Moreover, the night vision camera (which was probably not designed for underwater use) was so sensitive that it was picking up the bioluminescence from microorganisms and unable to focus on the squid themselves. So the boat turned on its light in order to fix that, whereupon the crew discovered that there were far more squid in the area than they had expected. Yet afterward, this guy proclaimed his efforts a success. By what measure, might I ask? He abused a piece of sensitive equipment, failed spectacularly to achieve his goal, and ended up being forced to retreat. That's like the definition of an epic failure.

Additionally, this same guy wanted to attach a camera to a squid so he could watch them go hunt something. I thought he'd put a tiny camera in an unobtrusive place, which would broadcast a radio signal so they could see what was up. Nope! This yahoo goes and puts something about the size of a handy-cam right on the squid's fin, attached by a wire to the boat. It was a long wire, but still! After making some wild conjectures about what some flashy color-changing might mean, this asshole watched in fascinated glee as the poor squid was attacked by her peers and then devoured alive. When the rest of the squid started attacking the camera, Dive Man remarked that the camera doesn't look like food, but they were still attacking it - seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the foreign object was the reason his victim was attacked in the first place. For all the time spent on talking up the squid for their intelligence (they may be capable of language, which seems to me a good indicator for self-awareness), these schmucks sure don't seem to have taken that into account.

Finally, they tried to transport a live squid to a research facility to study it, and failed at that, too. Immediately after catching it, the squid was placed into a cooler, of all things, and then driven for several hours. Yes, a cooler. Like, the thing you'd fill with beer & ice for a party in your garage. It might have been a Coleman, maybe an Igloo, I didn't get a good look. Unsurprisingly, the specimen did not survive the trip - which event was described by one bright member of the team as "ironic." Last I checked, irony involves defying expectations, and my expectations were that safely removing an animal from its natural habitat is often a tricky proposition. I want to throw these people out into space and watch them explode, then call their deaths "ironic." OK, not really, but it would be poetic. And illegal.

In conclusion, after watching this show and some of the ads on the channel, it has become apparent to me that Animal Planet is like the Discovery Channel, but for people who just want to gawk at animals. If you want an excuse to drink, get a fifth and watch this program - you may need to be hammered to withstand these hooligans.


Anonymous said...

Well said!

D said...

Thanks! Now that I re-read what I had written, though, perhaps I should applaud these folks for daring to suck. I mean, they suck now, but hopefully they will get better with time and practice.

Or maybe not. And they still don't deserve that TV show. Argh. Thanks again!

To Pursue said...

Its an "ENTERTAINMENT" documenatary.What the HELL did you expect??! There is a lot more that goes on than what the program actually shows. The Producer is the one who at the end gets to pic what shots are used and what's not, along with sound bites. If you really thought you were gonna get 100% education, well than you're the idiot! You act as though you never watched a documentary on cable before!!

D said...

Thanks for the comment! I recognize that a whole lot gets left on the cutting room floor - but if there was good material that I didn't see, then what I'm saying is that it should have replaced a lot of what I did see. The production values of the program as a show were perfectly fine in terms of overall narrative structure; I'm saying that the "experts" were actually hacks, and the places the narrative went were not good ones as a result.

Nothing is 100% educational (even lectures have hooks to keep you, hey, hooked), and that's not what I was expecting. I was expecting a polished production that A) presented interesting facts (check - I counted four) and B) treated setbacks as learning opportunities (fail, on numerous counts - the bulk of my post). I've watched many documentaries on cable, in fact, and it's by comparison to those that I say this one was sloppy.

In a documentary, things frequently do not go your way. Have you seen what the Planet Earth guys had to go through to get their footage of birds of paradise mating displays? Compare that to what was actually shown in the program on TV. But in Squid Invasion, we see plans go wrong and then the failure is regarded A) as a success, or B) with a puzzled "huh." That's just bad pedagogy. Dive Man should have gone back with the right tools for the job, maybe taken a different approach for better results - in other words, he should have learned from his mistake (which he didn't even acknowledge) and then tried again and done better. Lacking any of that, the program's value as a documentary is rather vulnerable to the principle of "garbage in, garbage out." And if that's all you had to work with, then you have my sympathy. Really, I mean that.

As a point of comparison, I would say that your 72-second intro video for SquidDiving.com is more professional, because it doesn't show people calling failed efforts "successes." You show the neat bits, a tease meant to inspire curiosity - that's the good stuff! Also, I must say that your indignant attitude does not reflect "a positive upbeat personality," or a desire "to excel at each task I undertake, always improving myself." What do you imagine a prospective employer will think of you when they see how you've taken criticism here?