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

Dragonboats, Tall Ships and the Private Lives of Giant Squid

Having spent most of the morning on board the Kaharoa, I decided to accompany the Discovery Channel film crew over to the NIWA lab this afternoon where they were going to film Steve O'Shea as he dissected the most recent giant squid specimen- the one that we hauled through the streets of Wellington in the boot (trunk) of Steve's car last week. Although it had only been a few days since I had last been immersed in squid guts, I figured that a chance like this doesn't come along all that often so I had better seize the opportunity when it presented itself. However, as we drove along the Wellington waterfront, we noticed a large crowd of people gathered near Queen's wharf all shouting at the top of their lungs. We soon realized that today was the last round of the Wellington dragonboat races and that it might be the perfect event to try catching on film.

For anybody who has not seen a dragonboat, which is probably quite a few of you, I believe that they originated in Hong Kong and are very long, very fast and very narrow boats that have twenty very strong paddlers sitting side by side. In the bow is a drummer beating out the rhythm for the paddlers to follow and standing in the stern is the helmsperson with a long sweep oar doing their best to keep the boat heading in the direction they want to travel.

Making our way through the crowds we managed to find a spot which was relatively free of people and which provided an unobstructed view of the races. Thinking back on it now, I am not at all surprised by this because the spot they chose to set up their very expensive camera was not high and safe on the seawall with the rest of the spectators, but right down there on the water, perched precariously on a pile of rocks with salt spray blowing in every direction. In addition to carrying one of their gear bags, I made myself useful by serving as a wind and salt spray barricade, jumping out of the way each time Peter panned the camera in my direction.

Since we had arrived just in time for the final races, the excitement level was at a fever pitch and tensions were running high. Every team had their own special uniforms, most brightly colored and some featuring flowing pennants that danced in the breeze. Actually breeze is not the correct term. Gale force winds might have been a more appropriate way to describe the conditions under which these races were held. Trying to maneuver six very long boats into a straight line so that none of them crossed the starting line too soon and to make sure that they were in position in the middle of their racing lane was no easy thing to do.

A number of boats actually capsized and more than one sunk before it made its way to the starting line. Once all the boats were in position, the race began. Never have I seen so much energy erupt in such a small amount of time - with perhaps the possible exception of a space shuttle launch. The boats literally burst out of their starting positions and moved with remarkable speed down the course. All along the way each team's fans would be cheering, drums would be pounding and the race announcer would be calling the play-by-play over the public address system. It was quite an experience and one that I am very glad to have had the opportunity to witness first-hand.

As we were packing up the camera gear before finally heading off to the NIWA lab and the rapidly defrosting squid that Steve had waiting for us, I spotted something that seemed to have come from another time. It was large, black-hulled sailing ship steaming into the harbor, silhouetted by the hills of Wellington. I later learned that the ship was a local sail training vessel named the Spirit of New Zealand. I found this quite a coincidence since just this past December I spent two weeks aboard the fully rigged sailing vessel H.M.S. Rose on a trip from Miami to New York.

Walking back to the film crew I took a minute to stop by a large, barn-like building called Rock 'n' Kayak. From what I could tell, they seemed to have just about every kayak ever made and there, at the end of the building, was a floor to ceiling artificial rock climbing cliff. Dangling from the cliff were kids of all ages, safety lines firmly attached to them at one end and to their parents on the ground at the other. All I can say is that there was no doubt in my mind that at least one of the people attached to each rope was having a terrific time.

When we finally arrived at the NIWA lab at about 5:30 in the afternoon, Steve had the giant squid arranged on one of the large dissecting tables. This squid Steve told us, was a small (1 meter mantle length, approximately 30 kilograms in weight) but fully mature male that was filled with spermatophores. Without getting into too many details, most of which I don't really understand, and others of which I am at a loss to figure out how to describe in language appropriate for this webpage, I did learn that spermatophores are the long white, rod-shaped structures with spring-like coils at one end for mobility that the males transfer to the females during mating. The spermatophores burrow into the female and find their way to the eggs which they can then fertilize. Based on the condition of this particular squid, some of us figured that he must have been interrupted by the trawl net at a very inappropriate moment. I was not in the room during Steve's interview so I cannot describe in detail all the things that he discussed. As they say, I guess you will just have to tune in and watch the show if you are really interested in finding out. I for one plan on doing just that.

To demonstrate that it is not just Architeuthis that are found in a condition like this, Steve brought out a pail that contained a relatively small species of squid named Moroteuthis. The writing on the pail said "Moroteuthis, oversized mature male". I am not sure as to the scientific protocol used for describing specimens, but in this case we all agreed that it was certainly quite accurate.

After the interview was over and the film crew had packed up their gear and headed off to the hotel, Steve and I stayed behind to finish cleaning up the lab and to work on getting the squid preserved. Yet again I found myself up to my elbows in squid as we carefully slid the squid into a large blue plastic tub and placed it once again in the boot of Steve's car. We used the squid to hold open the door to his lab while he went in search of the breathing masks that we needed to wear before we could go into the formalin-filled room where we had placed the other squid last week. After donning our masks we entered the room and removed the lid of the coffin-like tank. Through my mask, Steve could hear me gasp as I saw once again the squid that we had measured before. I had forgotten how large it was, literally filling the entire tank. Steve carefully placed the squid that we had just brought in alongside the squid already in the tank and the new one, including arms, was barely as large as the other one's mantle. Thinking again about the largest known recorded squid being almost sixty feet long, I began to think that perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea that I was not going to be able to get to dive to the depths of Kaikoura Canyon in the Deep Rover after all.

best regards,

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