He Seeks the Giant Squid

by Arthur Fisher

"It's one of the last real mysteries of nature in the sea."

Clyde F. E. Roper is staring at the ruffled waters of Florida's Indian River from the stern of the Smithsonian Institution's research vessel Sunburst, as a low sun burnishes his fringe of whiskers. He is talking about the creature that has become for him an obsession, some might say almost a mania - Architeuthis, the giant squid. He wants to catch one, not on a hook or in a net, but on film, from a deep-diving submersible.

Exchange his squid-decorated T-shirt for a souwester, and the 58-year-old marine biologist could double for the doughty fisherman whose statue oversees Massachusetts Gloucester Harbor. Indeed Roper was raised not far from there, in the tiny seaport of Rye, N.H., and spent summers as a lobsterman in his youth.

Now Roper is curator of the recently opened exhibit, In Search of Giant Squid at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., where he has worked since 1966. He also spends much time at the Smithsonian's Marine Research Station in Fort Pierce, Fla.

No one has ever seen a giant squid in its natural habitat - which Roper thinks may be 300 to 1,000 meters down - although they have been encountered at the surface. For many years, the only specimens available for examination were those washed ashore dead or dying, or found in the stomachs of sperm whales. Within the last decade, they've begun to be caught in deep commercial fishing nets.

"When you net a squid in the deep sea", Roper says, "the only ones you catch are the slow, the sick, and the stupid, because they normally have excellent eyesight and are extremely sensitive to what goes on around them. They have the most highly developed brain of any invertebrate."

No living giant squid has ever been maintained in an aquarium or research institution. So they remain an enigma. "We probably know more about the dinosaurs than about the giant squid", says Roper. "And that's what lures me on. I dont have to find the biggest. I just want to find where they live, what they do down there, how they move, how they mate."

What little scientists do know about these creatures is so intriguing that, as Roper puts it with forgivable hyperbole, "everybody in the world is interested in them."

The giant squid is a member of the cephalopods ("head-foot"), the class of marine animals that also includes the cuttlefish, the octopus, and the chambered nautilus. Some squid are tiny, little more than an inch long. But the giant squid lives up to its name. The largest specimen ever measured, one that was washed ashore in New Zealand in the late 1800s, was 60 feet long from the tip of its torpedo-shaped body to the ends of its two feeding tentacles, which are much longer than the other eight arms. This giant weighed about a ton. Roper believes they may grow to as much as 75 feet long "massive, massive, unbelievable animals."

The mesmerizing eyes of the giant squid, with a prominent dark iris, are the largest in the animal kingdom, as big as hubcaps. At the center of the crown of arms is the creatures formidable mouth, with a strong parrotlike beak and a rasping, toothed tongue called the radula, which together make mincemeat of its food. The powerful arms, thick as a mans thigh, bear rows of sharply toothed circular suckers "the shape of a plumbers helper", says Roper. So do the clublike ends of the far thinner but muscular tentacles, which can clamp down on prey like the jaws of some enormous pliers.

An awesome apparition! Indeed, sightings of giant squid over the centuries are undoubtedly responsible for the vast lore of sea monster tales. Take the notorious Kraken of Norse mythology, a beast so huge and powerful that its thrashings were thought to spawn whirlpools. The word comes from the Norwegian for a tree trunk or stump with the roots attached - an apt description of the giant squid.

Aristotle called the giant squid teuthos. Pliny's Natural History described one with arms "knotted like clubs" 30 feet long and a head as big as a cask. In 1555 the Swedish cleric Olaus Magnus wrote of "monstrous fish" of "horrible forms with huge eyes...One of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners."

In his 1851 epic masterpiece, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville portrayed an oceanic eyesore of "vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length...long arms radiating from its center and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas." Other lurid but unsubstantiated stories abounded; one had six French men-of-war and the four British ships that had captured them all being dragged under by a gigantic cuttlefish!

The earliest realistic record of Architeuthis is of an animal beached on Icelands shore in 1639. More sightings followed. In the 1850s, Danish zoologist Japetus Steenstrup analyzed these accounts, examined some recent specimens, and concluded that the alleged sea monsters were, in fact, nothing more fantastic than giant versions of squid. (For a detailed account of giant squid encounters see Richard Ellis book, Monsters of the Sea.)

But the air of terrifying mystery surrounding these animals is not easily dispelled, especially not with the activity of master romancers like Jules Verne. In 1861 a French corvette attacked a 25-foot squid off the island of Tenerife with cannon and rifle fire, then tried to haul it aboard, but got only the tail-end. The skipper then called the whole thing off, says Roper, "lest the creature damage or injure the ship and the crew." Roper's retort: "How dangerous is a giant squid full of cannon balls going to be?"

Verne altered some of the details of the incident and included it in his immortal 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne has Captain Nemo's submarine Nautilus attacked by a "terrible monster worthy of all the legends about such creatures." In addition to saddling the giant squid with a vicious and implacable disposition, Verne gets most of its physical attributes dead wrong.

And 130 years later, novelist Peter Benchley wrote Beast, which featured a vengeful 100-foot-long squid. "One of the things thats been my goal over the years", says Roper, "is to eliminate this mythology, with all its tremendous inaccuracy."

Roper's entry into the world of the giant squid was circuitous. "From the time I was a littlest kid", he recalls, "I was enthralled by the sea and boats. I would hang around the harbor, and then when I was 14, I started commercial lobstering. In a couple of years I saved enough to buy my own boat and gear, and fished summers right on into undergraduate school, Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., where I got interested in psychology and philosophy. Id always loved animals, and thought often of becoming a veterinarian, but Id never put that together with the sea."

"My older brother had been studying with a noted marine biologist at the University of Maryland, and while we were out fishing together the summer before my junior year he said, You know, you can actually study animals in the ocean."

Thus prompted, Roper spent the next two years "virtually living in the Transylvania science building" to achieve a biology major; he hadn't previously had a single science course. Next came graduate studies at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences in Miami. At the end of his first year, Roper was about ready to give up school and go back to fishing. But one of his professors, a cephalopod expert named Gil Voss, collared him in the parking lot and offered him the opportunity to work with him on a National Science Foundation grant. Roper accepted. "I'll never know whether he did it deliberately to keep me from quitting", Roper says today.

"Voss started me working on a group of mid-water squids called firefly or jewel squids", Roper remembers. "They are covered with light-emitting organs...the most beautiful purples, greens, and reds...unique little animals. Then I found a couple of specimens I couldnt identify, no matter what. It turned out they were a new species of squid. And Gil said, `That would probably make a pretty good masters thesis'. At that point Id really gotten hooked. So I called my Dad and said, `Sell my boat, sell my gear, just sell out'. I felt I needed to make the commitment to graduate school. And that was it.

"That was in the summer of 1960. In 1966, with a Ph.D., I went directly to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and Ive been studying cephalopods ever since".

Roper's academic - and culinary - encounters with giant squid actually led to an important insight into their physiology. Over the years, he has enjoyed preparing squid and octopus for dining, and even given courses on cephalopod cuisine for the Smithsonian Associates. ("There's only one requirement for getting a passing grade; you have to at least taste what you cook".) So he eagerly accepted an invitation to a celebratory cephalopod dinner party. His host was a Newfoundlander Ph.D. candidate who had just successfully defended his dissertation in a particularly grueling session at which Roper had served as an examiner.

"There were 12 different cephalopod dishes to eat", Roper recalls with gusto. "We were devouring various kinds of squid and octopus, accompanied by beer and screech - the infamous rot-gut rum they make in Newfoundlandi - and having a glorious time. Then the candidate said he had in his freezer some giant squid, a piece that had come ashore. Now, nobody had ever tasted giant squid. So of course we had to try it. And it was bitter and tasting of ammonia, really terrible stuff. The next morning we analyzed it in the lab, and found that there were ammonium ionsi - lighter than sea water - concentrated in the squids tissues, serving as little personal flotation devices."

Today, Roper is planning what could be the capstone to his career. He and other experts will pool their decades of experience with cephalopods to seek out giant squid. They plan to use one of a pair of a deep-diving submersibles chartered from Florida's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a premier marine research facility, to patrol targeted waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and capture the elusive creatures on camera.

The subs, the Johnson-Sea-Links, are named for Edwin Link, the famed inventor, and philanthropist Seward Johnson Sr., whose open-handedness contributed to their creation and to the establishment of Harbor Branch. Each sub has a large acrylic sphere for maximum viewability, and a full complement of special lighting and camera equipment. And it is capable of descending to the hypothetical 1,000-meter-deep lair of Architeuthis.

"We have learned so much", Roper says, "about deep-sea animals by observing and filming them from submersibles, things we could only guess at before, or didnt have the slightest notion of...it's phenomenal. It will be magnificent to come right up to them and get an eyeball-to-eyeball view of a living deep-sea squid...an incredible sensation. Theres a tremendous and wonderful diversity of forms in squid. They are such fabulous creatures that I'm even more excited about them now, 35 years after I first started studying them, than I was then."

Roper is confident that he will be able to find giant squid, because he and other teuthologists - squid experts - have spent more than 30 years "putting together little bits and pieces, so that you gradually build a picture of what this animal might be doing, and where it might be living, and when are the best times to find it.

"Were going to combine the search for giant squid with a search for sperm whales", Roper says. "The two are linked together, because sperm whales feed on giant squid. So well try to get there at the time when the whales are feeding.

"Of course, what I'd really like is to have a trained sperm whale to act like a truffle hound. Unlike teuthologists, sperm whales dont have any trouble finding giant squid."

More Information:

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman (gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)