When scientists studying the diet of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico noticed that they had caught something large in their net, they hauled it up and got the surprise of their lives: an extremely rare, elusive giant squid

“As the trawl net rose out of the water, I could see that we had something big in there ... really big,” said Anthony Martinez, chief scientist on the research cruise.

The team -- researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- were well aware of just how significant this catch was. Giant squid haven’t been seen in the Gulf of Mexico since 1954. They’re extremely difficult to catch, so little is known about them --scientists don’t even know exactly how they reproduce.

Unfortunately, the squid was killed by the rapid ascent when the scientists, not knowing what they had, pulled their net up from 1,500 feet underwater. However, it was preserved and has been sent to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History for study.

At 19.5 feet, this specimen is actually rather small. Adult female giant squid can grow up to 43 feet in length, while males reach about 33 feet. They are usually found near continental and island slopes from the North Atlantic Ocean to the South Atlantic.

The first images of a live adult giant squid weren’t taken until 2002 on Goshiki Beach in Japan, which contributed to their mystique and the popularity of giant squid mythology up to that point. The first photos of a live adult giant squid in its natural habitat were taken in 2005, with video of a live adult finally captured in December 2006.