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Jumbo squid invade San Diego shores, spook divers

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"As soon as we went underwater and turned on the video lights, there they were. They would ram into you, they kept hitting the back of my head," he said.

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"One got ahold of the video light head and yanked on it for two or three seconds and he was actually trying to take the video light with him," said Uzun, who later posted a 3-minute video with his underwater footage on YouTube. "It almost knocked the video camera out of my hands."

Scientists aren't sure why the squid, which generally live in deep, tropical waters off Mexico and Central America, are showing up off the Southern California coast – but they are concerned.

In recent years, small numbers have been spotted from California to Sitka, Alaska and are increasingly being spotted off the San Diego coastline – an alarming trend that scientists believe could be caused by anything from global warming to a shortage of food or a decline in the squid's natural predators.

In 2005, a similar invasion off San Diego delighted fishermen and, in 2002, thousands of jumbo flying squid washed up on the beaches here. That year, workers removed 12 tons of dead and dying squid.

This summer, the wayward squid have also been hauled up by fisherman in waters off Orange County, just north of San Diego.

Research suggests the squid may have established a year-round population off California at depths of 300 to 650 feet (125 to 200 meters), said Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Divers this summer have been encountering them at about 60 feet (18 meters) to 80 feet (24 meters) down, they said.

No one knows how many squid are in the shallow waters, but one biologist estimated they could number in the hundreds, or possibly thousands.

"Usually where there's one squid, there's a lot of squid, so I would assume that there's a good number," said John Hyde, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in San Diego.

Their presence off the coast – and the subsequent die-offs – may occur when their prey moves to shallow waters and the squid follow, and then get trapped and confused in the surf, said Hillgarth, who saw a dying squid on the beach last weekend.

"It was an amazing privilege to touch a creature like that and see how amazingly beautiful it was," she said. "They have these wonderful eyes. ... They look all-seeing, all-knowing."
That's the kind of description that pulls veteran divers such as Raleigh Moody back to the pitch-black water, despite the danger.

"My usual dive buddy, he didn't want to come out," said Moody, as he prepared for a night dive with another friend. "There are some divers (who) just don't want to deal with it and there are some like me that, until they hear of something bad happening, I'm going to be an idiot and go back in the water."