Testing Waters to Learn more about Giant Squid

from USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc. 02-01-1996

They're so elusive, so stealthy that no one's ever seen one alive in its natural habitat.

Or at least lived to tell about it.

They're giant squid, the quintessential sea monsters,Architeuthis, terror of legend and maybe the last great mystery of the sea. Unless Clyde Roper and Steve O'Shea have their way.

Roper, one of the world's leading squid scholars, is heading the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's "Quest for the Giant Squid." The $5 million scientific expedition in waters off New Zealand is set to sail in November. Accompanied by a National Geographic Society TV crew and connected by satellite to classrooms around the country, Roper and his Squid Squad, which includes New Zealander O'Shea, plan to descend daily in a submersible to search the abyss for the elusive squid. If they come back with even a minute of film of the giant squid in its lair, "it will be one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th-century marine biology," says Richard Ellis, author of Monsters of the Sea and an expert on marine natural history.

After centuries of myths and tantalizing tales of sightings, science still knows very little about these super-jumbo calamari, except what can be gleaned from the carcasses of about 100 beached squid dating back to 1639. Just this week, O'Shea and other marine biologists in New Zealand announced they had netted three dead giant squids - including a female 26 feet long - while trolling in deep waters east of the island nation last month. The news set off great excitement in New Zealand and is likely to stir even more interest in the Smithsonian expedition.

The find also underscores how difficult it is to locate or capture a giant squid unless it's dead or dying. Giant squids can grow up to 60 feet long, Roper says. They have eyes as big as hubcaps and 10 arms lined with thousands of nasty suckers. They have powerful jaws and slashing, parrot-like beaks, and torpedo-shaped bodies the color of purplish blood.

Roper - a sort of Captain Ahab with a Ph.D. - is determined to find and capture his Moby Squid - live on video, of course - deep beneath the ocean waves. "Oh, it's a gorgeous, beautiful animal," rhapsodizes Roper, 58, marine biologist and chief squid hunter for the Smithsonian. "Of course, I'm biased."

Indeed. With his New England accent, his trim seafarer's beard and a squid tie tack bouncing on his chest, Roper looks and sounds like the man born to lead the quest. "It's a staggering phenomenon that this big animal exists, and we don't know much about it," says Roper, who's been at the Smithsonian for 30 years.

Most people know giant squid lore from the likes of author Jules Verne and Walt Disney. Remember the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the famous squid-attacks-submarine scene? Then there's Jaws-creator Peter Benchley, whose 1991 book, Beast, depicted a 100-foot squid devouring tourists off Bermuda like so many hors d'oeuvres.

In The Odyssey, Homer described a squidlike creature as a nightmare with fangs. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville portrayed a "vast pulpy mass . . . innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within reach."

Entertaining poppycock, mostly. Still, it's both exasperating and intriguing that science knows more about long-dead dinosaurs than live giant squid. "We know something about the habitats of dinosaurs and their biology, their reproduction and distribution, but these are all facts we do not understand about the giant squid," Roper says. "Just to be able to glimpse one for a few minutes, we can learn so much."

That's why he and his Squid Squadmates can't wait to go exploring the deep in their four-man submersible. But what if, 3,000 feet down, as they're peering through the craft's acrylic sphere, a giant squid grabs the sub and tosses it like a beach ball? Says Roper: "Wouldn't that be fanatastic? We could see all the suckers along the arms." This is not as crazy as it sounds. Roper says the danger is minimal, and he has science on his side - and sperm whales. Turns out, analysis of sperm whale vomit shows that sperm whales are major consumers of giant squid. Obviously, whales know where to find their meals, so Roper hopes to attach a camera and measuring instruments with suction cups to a whale's body.

"The whales can be our beagle hounds," Roper grins. The Pacific Ocean off New Zealand's South Island is a promising spot to search for squids because many sperm whales hang out there. The capture of three dead squids in just one month only validates Roper's choice of the site. But squids and whales won't be the only phenomena under study. Also on board will be scientists studying the ocean floor, undersea volcano formation and other deep-sea creatures, including a species of sponge that contains a promising anti-cancer agent.

"The potential knowledge that could come from this is tremendous, and you can't put a price tag on that," says Roper, who is trying to raise the last $1.5 million for the expedition.

The Smithsonian also plans to use the expedition to build a school curriculum and inspire youngsters to become scientists. In satellite-connected classrooms, students will be able to watch live broadcasts of squid-hunting activities. Computer-equipped classrooms will be able to participate through the Internet.

"Within four seconds, kids will see and experience exactly what we're doing," Roper says.

Judging from the response to the Museum of Natural History's In Search of Giant Squids exhibit, kids already are hooked on big creepy-crawlies. Created by Roper and opened in 1994, the exhibit includes a rare, preserved giant squid carcass that washed ashore in 1980 on a Massachusetts beach. The 440-pound female is missing most of its arms but probably measured nearly 32 feet when alive.

More than 100,000 other squid specimens - one of the largest collections in the world - are preserved in jars lining the shelves of Roper's laboratory at the museum. His office is filled with squid doodads. His filing cabinets are plastered with squid cartoons.

He knows every way to cook calamari and has sampled most of them - including, once, a giant squid. Yuck, he says. It was too bitter, thanks to ammonium ions concentrated in squid muscles, head and arms. The buoyancy from the ammonium probably explains why dead or dying giant squids rise to the surface and are washed ashore, Roper says.

In his 30 years of squid studies, Roper has been in every ocean and sea. He has interviewed fishermen and sailors and tracked down every carcass he's learned of. He's talked to Portuguese whale-hunters in the Azores who described how dying whales often vomit up giant squid. But Roper has yet to see the object of his desire.

"We will find them, maybe not now but someone will," Roper says. "And I sure want that someone to be me."

Copyright 1996, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.

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gene carl feldman / gene@seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov