20 February 1999
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research - NIWA
Greta Point, Wellington, New Zealand

Eight Arms to Hold You

Most of everything we know about the giant squid (Architeuthis sp.) has come from the examination of animals that have either been washed up on beaches, spit up by sperm whales or caught accidentally in large fishing trawls. Because of the relative rarity of well preserved specimens, whenever one is found, there is an opportunity to learn something new about this elusive creature.

Recently, a number of giant squid have been caught in the large, deep-water fishing trawls in the waters around New Zealand and Australia. One in particular, caught just a few weeks ago in the waters just south of Kaikoura Canyon, was recovered in excellent condition and was awaiting Clyde's arrival, safely stored in a large, walk-in freezer here at the NIWA lab.

Every so often, a large refrigerated truck pulls up to Steve O'Shea's back door and deposits a large bag or box containing the frozen remains of some sea creature that has been found. In addition to his job as curator of the collection of marine organisms, Steve is also the guy that most fisherman know is the person who wants any giant squid that may accidentally get caught in one of their trawl nets. Some fishing boats have observers on deck who quickly bag and freeze any squid that may come on board - not an easy task when you are faced with a 200 kilogram or more mass of very unresponsive squid on the heaving deck of a working fishing boat.

The markings on the outside of the bags are often a wonder of understatement. This particular specimen came wrapped in a very large brown sack with the words "Giant Squid, Museum Wellington" scrawled across the outside. For the past few days, this bag has been sitting on one of the large dissection tables at the NIWA lab, thawing gradually, awaiting today's activities.

Last night, Clyde and Steve went through many of the published reports of giant squid observations in an effort to come up with a list of all the key measurements that Clyde and Mike would be making the next day. This list filled several pages of Clyde's bright red notebook. Some of the measurements like Mantle Length, Mantle Width, and Arm Length are fairly obvious. Ones like the thickness of the mantle, or the circumference of each arm at the base were a little less obvious (to me at least) and a little more difficult to actually make as you shall see.

Making sure that they had everything, Mike and Clyde wheeled the cart containing all the cameras, dissecting tools and waterproof clothing (boots, gloves and aprons) along the path by Evans Bay to the lab where the squid was thawing. The first thing that they needed to do after making sure that the squid was defrosted enough to easily reposition without doing any damage to it, was to gently unfold the squid and begin to arrange it in a more "natural" position. In order to fit into the ship's freezer, the squid's arms had been folded back along the mantle, bending the head in the process. With great care, they were able to extend the arms until the squid very nearly filled the entire length of the dissection table.

Based on this specimen, there is no doubt that giant squid contain the dark, sepia-colored ink that we associate with the smaller, more familiar squid. The entire squid, and very soon all of us were covered with it. Clyde took a hose and very carefully washed the entire squid from head to toe (oops, I meant arms to tail). In the process, Clyde gave me a quick lesson in giant squid anatomy pointing out such features at the large, parrot-like beak at the base of the 8 arms, and the two, very large gills resting inside the mantle cavity.

Once the squid had been thoroughly cleaned and arranged, the work of making the measurements began. Using a long piece of string and a measuring board, Mike and Clyde measured widths, lengths, diameters, circumferences and thicknesses of many things that I had never heard of in my life. Thankfully, Ingrid understood and stood by with the red notebook, calling out the next measurement that needed to be made and then carefully recording the number that was given to her, and repeating it for confirmation.

I guess the word had gotten out about the giant squid that was being examined today, because all during the day, large numbers of curious visitors, many of them affiliated with NIWA in one way or another, cautiously stepped into the lab and asked if they could have a look at this creature whom most had only ever read about, but never seen. It was a rather surreal scene watching Mike and Clyde going about their often grisly work while people posed for pictures in the background. At one point, Steve's wife and parents came in to visit both with Steve AND the squid.

Through the morning and into the late afternoon the measuring, counting and sampling continued until finally, everything that needed to be measured, counted or sampled, had been. Because this particular specimen, which according to Clyde was the most perfectly intact one that he had ever worked on with only the two long feeding tentacles missing, was destined for display in a museum, it needed to be preserved until it could be put on display. Since there are not too many little glass jars that could contain something this big, Steve spent about an hour injecting over 5 liters of formalin into it with a large syringe before moving it later in the evening into a large, coffin-like metal box filled with the preservative. However, one of the things that most of us commented on during the day was how relatively clean and fresh the squid actually smelled. Half expecting to be overwhelmed by the smell of either rotting flesh or of ammonia as was described in some of the giant squid literature, it was almost like being in a well maintained fish market.

Clyde, never being one to miss an opportunity to make a point in the most dramatic way possible, quite visibly demonstrated how pleasant smelling the squid actually was. Although he vowed that he would regret it later, I was able to convince Clyde to provide a representative sense of scale for the giant squid by climbing up on the table and letting me take a picture of man and beast. However, the only way that I was able to do that was by climbing up there and doing it first.

Since most squids are rarely in this incredibly good condition, everyone thought that it should really be photographed before going into the bath of formalin. Looking around the lab to see what we had to work with, I found two ladders and a couple of boards. Building a makeshift scaffold that straddled the dissecting table, I climbed up the ladder, walked out onto the boards (while Clyde and Mike both held onto the base of the ladders and looked on in slight disbelief) and with my head braced against the ceiling, took a picture as close to vertical that I could. We then moved the ladder a few feet further down the table and the process was repeated. The picture below is one of the first, full color composites of a giant squid taken from straight above rather than at the rather low oblique angle that often appears in the literature.

Later that evening (mind you, it was a Saturday night here in New Zealand) at least 10 people from the lab showed up to help us move the squid from the dissecting room, clear across the NIWA campus and into the formalin tank. One of the things that has really impressed me in these first few days has been the helpfulness of all the people that I have met. I can't imagine too many other organizations where so many people would both willingly and quite happily come back into work on a Saturday night. Particularly, since most of the people who did come in were of the age where I am sure they had many more enjoyable things that they could have been doing.

Regardless, with good humor, great strength and incredible care, the squid was gently lifted off the dissecting table so that a large blue plastic tarp could be placed beneath it. Like two anxious parents, both Clyde and Steve were on the table with the squid, orchestrating each maneuver so as not to damage any of the squid's rather delicate parts. With great coordination, the squid was finally lifted off the table with a collective grunt from all participants. It was my good fortune to have the job of photographer so I got to stand off in the distance rather than risk embarrassing myself and demonstrate my lack of strength.

So, how does one carry a more than 200 kilogram squid several hundred meters or more? By placing it in the bed of a pickup truck of course. With Steve driving the squid down the road, the "squid squad", including some very young helpers, ran down the path after it in hot pursuit.

Formalin is a very nasty chemical and not one to be treated lightly. Careful to minimize anybody's exposure to the fumes (the children were not allowed anywhere near the room in which it was kept) Steve and Clyde gave all the folks very careful instructions as to what to do, what not to touch and made sure that things went as smoothly and as QUICKLY as possible.

Getting a very heavy giant squid through very a narrow doorway was no easy task but remarkably, it went off without a hitch and the squid was carefully placed into a large, stainless steel tank which was filled with a 10% formalin solution. The minute the squid was lowered into the tank, Steve, Clyde and Mike chased everyone out of the room (except for Ingrid, who was filming the entire process with a video camera, and myself). Then, after donning what looked to me like gas masks, they plunged their gloved hands into the tank to make sure that the squid was arranged correctly in the tank and that the formalin had penetrated to all parts of the squid's body. When it was over, the three squid guys knelt besides the tank and smiled broadly .....well, maybe you'll have to trust me on this.

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