The Hunt for Giant Squid


Clyde Roper looks proudly out over an ocean of children surrounding a sloping, rectangular acrylic case in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's Life in the Sea Hall. The kids ogle. The comments fly. "Gross!" "Cool!" "Awesome!" Beyond the children lies the most mysterious subject of Roper's life-long work.

It is Architeuthis dux, a giant squid, preserved in state, like Lenin in his tomb. "We know more about dinosaurs than we do about the giant squid," says Roper, who, despite 35 years in the business of cephalopods (squids, octopuses, and cuttlefishes) has yet to see a living Architeuthis. "The fact is," says Roper, "no one has ever seen a giant squid in its natural deep-water habitat."

What people do see is what Roper calls "the largest martini in Washington," a 250-gallon isopropyl alcohol cocktail that Roper personally mixed to preserve the only publicly displayed Architeuthis in the United States. Roper is leading us on a personal tour of "In Search of Giant Squids," the year-old permanent exhibit he curated as a zoologist in the museum's Invertebrate Zoology Department.

"It's not in magnificent condition, but it's essentially all we've got," he continues as we pause to admire this specimen. "The carcass washed ashore in 1980 on Plum Island beach in Massachusetts, and what skin the sand and surf didn't abrade has been discolored by years in its alcohol bath," says Roper. "The eyes are missing as are the two long tentacles typically used for feeding."

Still, it is easy to see where Roper's enthusiasm comes from. The creature once had a complex brain, eyes the size of headlights, a built-in jet-propulsion system, and the ability to disappear from predators in a cloud of ink. "This animal probably measured nearly 32 feet if you account for the missing tentacles," says Roper. It is roughly half of the 60-foot, one-ton size to which he believes Architeuthis can grow. And although he acknowledges larger estimates, he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. "Everyone wants his specimen to be the largest," he says. "When you measure the tentacles they're a little like bungy cords. You stretch one far enough, you get a more impressive length."

Even if the Smithsonian's specimen is relatively small, to envision it in life is still, in the words of the Smithsonian's younger visitors, "pretty awesome." Picture a station wagon-sized, torpedo-shaped animal with a Medusa's crown of eight sucker-lined arms and two longer club-ended tentacles that shoot out to snatch prey. Roper points to an exhibit case at an artifact that resembles a parrot beak under glass. It is one of the squid's most impressive attributes: a chitinous beak embedded in powerful muscle that lies at the center of the circle of extremities.

Roper notes that our obvious appreciation for Architeuthis has not been shared by all. "This specimen has been in three or four different places at the museum. It started out in the Rotunda behind the tail end of the elephant. But the Smithsonian ladies committee, which has Christmas parties there, took offense. Can you imagine that?" We chuckle at the image of Washington's finest attempting to incorporate such a huge piece of preserved flesh into their holiday decorations.

But there is a serious addendum to this trivia. "Specimens are hard to come by, so we might as well appreciate what we have," says Roper. Over the span of his career, he has seen a handful of giant squid carcasses that were either washed ashore or pulled up in the nets of fishing trawlers. As we wend our way through the exhibit, he tells us several heart-breaking stories of near misses with specimens: hallucinatory descriptions from sailors in Newfoundland, too late reports from Bermuda, and, worst of all, a Tasmanian fishing boat that hauled up "a fully intact Architeuthis," the marine biologist groans, "which the fishermen chopped to pieces and tossed at each other for no particular reason."

If anyone is used to working piecemeal, though, it is Roper. What he has to work with at the moment are, as he puts it, "little bitty pieces" of information. "We seldom have an entire animal to work with," he says. "It's always broken up, there is always something missing, and you find one specimen at a time, sometimes years apart. Finally, you start to build an image of what you think the animal is like, where you think it lives, and how it makes its living. You just have to keep plugging away."

The study of living giant squid presents an even greater challenge. Although Roper believes there are giant squid living in all of the world's oceans, they roam deep-sea ranges at depths somewhere around 660 to 2,300 feet where the only boundaries are the ocean's surface and floor. "The immediate challenge," says Roper "is that they have a long way to swim and a lot of places to hide." Giant squid also have acute vision and may even be able to sense and avoid an approaching submersible using what scientists believe may be a sensory receptor system not unlike the lateral line of a fish. Combine those factors with the need for a large mother ship and a submersible just to get into the deep sea, and you can start to appreciate what Roper is up against.

A skilled storyteller, Roper weaves together exhibit highlights with squid tales and natural history. We stop to admire another sizable squid known as Taningia danae, or, as the museum's press materials have billed it, "the world's largest flasher." It, too, is laid out in an acrylic bed. Roper tells us that he and several colleagues once found one alive in the open ocean and attempted to prove their hypothesis that the animal had the ability to flash light from strobe-flashlight organs, or photophores, at the tips of two of its arms. "We're talking about an animal that I knew had a sharp, hard beak and sharp hooks instead of suckers on all eight of its arms," says Roper.

"It was pitch black in the lab, and the water was a frigid 38 degrees Fahrenheit. The plan was to elect someone to put his hand into the water with the squid to see if it would flash. Being scientists, they reasoned that I should be the one because I'm a New Englander who is, hypothetically, used to cold water. So I slowly, cautiously placed my hand into the water, swished it around, and suddenly, there it was, ZAP, a brilliant, blue-green flash. The best part of the story," Roper says with a smile, "was that the flash startled me, and I immediately pulled my arm out of that icy water spraying everyone around me!" Was he hurt by the squid? "Not that time," he says wryly.

Told with Roper's thick New England accent, his stories, although scientifically serious, are vaguely reminiscent of the "Bert and I" Down East yarns popularized by Yankee humorists Marshall Dodge and Robert Brian. And with his Ahab-style white beard, he looks as though he'd be just as at home in a lobster shack as he is here in the scholarly halls of the Smithsonian. In fact, Roper, 57, grew up just south of Maine, in Rye, New Hampshire, and worked there as a lobsterman from the ages of 14 to 21.

On our way out of the exhibit, Roper acknowledges a small child. He stops to make sure she can maneuver by him to see a graphic panel revealing that squid and snails are related; both are mollusks, the phylum that includes snails, clams, oysters, squids, and octopods. Clearly Roper has raised children of his own and his understanding of them is reflected throughout the exhibit. The graphics are full of information that appeals to a younger audience but works, too, for all of us. At one point in front of the squid anatomy station, Roper has us sticking our tongues out in a demonstration of how an appendage that is all muscle with no bone, like a tentacle, can flex in all directions, muscle pulling against muscle.

The tour culminates in a behind-the-scenes visit to Roper's office. We walk a gauntlet of glass cases and metal cabinets to the Invertebrate Zoology Department. Preserved and labeled specimens ranging from animal skeletons to fossil mollusks spill out of the cabinets. Inside his office, Roper has his own private stock: dozens of pickled octopus and squid specimens line his shelves. Among them are a couple of jewel squids, representatives of the species that hooked Roper into the study of cephalopods during graduate school at the University of Miami. "I was working with jewel squids brought up by the Dana Expeditions, the famous Danish scientific voyages launched in the early part of this century. Even in preservation after 50, 60, 70 years, the specimens were still magnificent because they were covered with photophores," he says. "There were ruby reds and absolute royal blues. God, they were beautiful."

Elsewhere in the office, Roper's personality manifests itself further. Squid and octopus cartoons, many penned by natural history comic Gary Larson, paper the end of a tall bookshelf. Given that Roper is a man who has spent his career studying Architeuthis, an animal he has never seen alive, a sense of humor is clearly an asset. But he may well have the last laugh. In the summer of 1996, he plans to launch an expedition to search for Architeuthis. "That is if the funding comes through," he says with Yankee dogma.

Roper will team with the National Geographic Society to seek out Architeuthis, study it, and film it with the help of the Johnson Sea Link submersible. If Roper is fortunate enough to get his encounter, it will be the culmination of years of cephalopod research and study by Roper and other members of the self-proclaimed "squid squad," a small group of cephalopod lovers that includes Roper's graduate school advisor and mentor, Gil Voss, and Newfoundland's "King of Squid," Fred Aldrich, both now deceased.

But whatever the outcome of the expedition, Roper says the trip will be well worth it. "It is science, research, and education, so the process itself is going to turn up valuable information on deep-sea habitats and fauna."

As for the specific details of this mission, Roper is keeping those close to his vest. When pressed about where he will go and what kind of technology he might use to find Architeuthis, he is as elusive as a giant squid. "What do we need to make this expedition successful? Basically, we have the tools and the know how. Now all we need is the squid," he says.

Andrea Conley-Early is a freelance writer who specializes in aquatic subjects. She lives in Boston.

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