February 13, 1996

Scientists Close in on Elusive Giant Squid

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The lair of the giant squid is a staple of novels and horror movies, and perhaps of nightmares. But for biologists it is a mystery. No one has ever observed the beast in its natural habitat, despite decades of probing the sea's dim recesses. Fishermen towing nets through the depths have snagged giant squids on occasion, and dead or dying ones have been known to wash ashore, often half eaten by birds and sea life. But more than a century after the giant squid and its supposed habitat were featured in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," the surprising truth is that very little is known of the deep monster and how it eats and rests, courts and mates, swims and behaves.

That may soon change, however. Scientists have made much progress lately in discovering the giant's den. In the last two months alone, biologists and fishermen around New Zealand and Australia have cast nets into the deep and caught four of the big squids, including one of the largest males ever found. Moreover, a leading expert on the creatures, Dr. Clyde F.E. Roper of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is mounting a $5 million expedition to observe the giant squid in its habitat. Traveling to the South Pacific near New Zealand, Roper plans to enter a tiny submersible, dive deep and shadow the beast in the sunless depths, seeking to capture its secrets on film for the first time. "Our chances are very, very good," Roper said of the possibility of a deep encounter. "But keep in mind that we had lots of shots at the Moon before we got there." Referring to the cost of the New Zealand foray, he added: "It's a relatively tiny investment when you think of the potential for knowledge and information. We know so little about their biology and behavior." Roper has studied the giant squid for decades but, like all other experts, has never seen one alive. Specimens hauled to the surface are usually dead or about to expire, having been battered, squeezed and suffocated in nets full of fish.

The main clues that Roper and other scientists have followed to locate the animal's habitat are food chains -- the progression of who eats whom in nature, from microscopic grazers to mammoth predators the size of apartment buildings. It turns out that the giant squid feeds on certain types of deep fish now being harvested in great numbers and in turn is fed on by sperm whales, giants in their own right that dive down perhaps up to a mile to feast on the boneless leviathans. Scientists, like hunters following a pack of bloodhounds, plan on tracking the fauna at both ends of this food chain in hopes of discovering the giant squid in the middle, lurking in its dark home. Some experts are a bit leery about doing so, given the beast's 10 large tentacles lined with sucker pads and its reputation for ruthlessness. "I have a lot of respect for these animals," said Dr. Ellen C. Forch, a fisheries biologist in New Zealand, who for more than 15 years has compiled data on the giant squid. As for the expedition, Dr. Forch said she had no plans to go down in the tiny submersible and preferred to monitor the action from a ship. "I have two small children," she explained. "And they need their mother."

Though very poorly known, and often used as a symbol of humanity's ignorace of the deep, the giant squid already holds a number of records. It is believed to be the largest of all the world's creatures that have no backbones, growing up to lengths of 60 or 70 feet, longer than a city bus. Its huge eyes are the largest in the animal kingdom, sometimes the size of dinner plates. Some of its nerve fibers are so big they were initially mistaken for blood vessels.

Over the centuries the giant squid has clearly been the inspiration for countless tales of ogres, including the kraken, legendary sea monsters off Norway. Erik Pontoppidan, bishop of Bergen, a Norwegian port, in 1753 described an immense sea monster "full of arms" that was big enough to crush the largest man-of-war. Modern impressions of the giant squid began to form with Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which was published in Paris in 1871. Drawing on reports of real-life encounters, he depicted the animal fairly accurately anatomically but fabricated its habitat, describing it as living in deep caverns in the sides of submarine cliffs. The cave openings were cloaked by tangles of giant weeds. As Captain Nemo and his submarine passed one of these dim grottoes, a passenger saw a "formidable swarming, wriggling movement" in the weeds. Soon, the submarine and its crew were battling a swarm of giant squids and their writhing tentacles. In the 20th century, it became clear from sightings, captures and strandings that the giant squid was ubiquitous throughout the sea, though very reclusive. Its scientific name is Architeuthis (pronounced ark-e-TOOTH-iss), meaning chief squid in Greek.

Modern scientists have repeatedly tried to catch the beast and observe it in its deep lair, using nets on long lines, submersibles equipped with bright lights and cameras, and lately robots tied to long tethers -- always to no avail. Only fishermen have made successful hauls, always by accident. But lacking the ability or interest to preserve the huge specimens, fishermen typically take a picture or two before throwing the carcass overboard, leaving biologists to lament the lost treasure. All that began to change in the last decade or so off New Zealand. In a pioneering venture, fishermen and scientists there worked together to develop a series of deep commercial fisheries, going after such exotic fish as hoki, ling and the orange roughy. The focus was Chatham Rise, a rocky plateau the size of Texas that lies hidden a half mile or so beneath the waves and drops off steeply on its sides. Chatham Rise and its flanks were discovered to teem with deep-sea life. Starting in 1984, as the pace of the deep fishing picked up, commercial fishermen began occasionally hauling up giant squids that were apparently feeding on dense schools of fish at depths ranging between 1,000 and 4,000 feet. A system of reporting was initiated so that Dr. Forch and her colleagues in Wellington, working at what is now known as the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, learned of the catches and often received body parts or whole carcasses to study.

In 1991, the work became more analytical as the government agency commissioned the Tangaroa, a 230-foot fisheries research vessel specially built and equipped to probe the deep sea with nets, trawls, sonars and other advanced gear.

In the last few years, Roper of the Smithsonian has joined the New Zealanders in their work, sifting through the evidence from the accumulating sightings in a hunt for habitat clues. A still unresolved question is whether the beast spends most of its time swimming through inky midwaters or near the bottom.

Since December, a run of landings has thrown the field into a high state of excitement. The Australians caught a large female near Tasmania. And on Chatham Rise and a more westerly site, the New Zealanders caught two females, 26 feet and 13 feet long, as well as a prize male, the physically smaller of the two genders and for some reason extremely rare. It was 20 feet long and discovered at a depth of around 1,000 feet. "That's very shallow," Steve O'Shea, a marine scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Wellington, said in an interview. "We expect them to be around 1,000 meters," or 3,280 feet below the surface.

Some ecologists fear that deep fishing is unsettling the squid's diet and domain, possibly forcing the animal into shallower waters. But scientists say they cannot resolve the issue because information on deep ecology is so scarce.

O'Shea, who is in charge of collecting giant squid data throughout New Zealand waters, from both government and commercial vessels, said the new specimens were in beautiful shape. In the past, dead animals have often been a shambles, hacked into pieces by fishermen or so bruised and abraded that parts were unrecognizable.

"They're intact!" O'Shea said of the new specimens. "No tentacles are torn off." As for the overall hunt, he added, "We're getting a very tantalizing glimpse of where we expect to find these things."

The scientific team consisting of the New Zealanders, Dr. Roper and his Smithsonian colleagues believe that the time is ripe to make a concerted push to observe the giant squid in its habitat. "Seeing a giant squid would be the ultimate," said Dr. Forch, the fisheries biologist. "Naturalists for a long time have been going after all sorts of exotic things that are easy to get to. But this is very remote and elusive. It's just out of reach."

If enough money can be raised, the team plans to conduct the hunt between late November and February, which is summertime in New Zealand and a season when the giants are frequently found. In a two-pronged attack, the team first plans to use the research vessel Tangaroa to make preliminary searches for deep fish types and densities. Then, its specialists will deploy binoculars up top and underwater microphones below to track and listen to sperm whales as they dive into the depths to eat squid, hopefully guiding the scientists to the lair.

If all goes as planned, team members plan to send a robot down to inspect the area and then to dive personally into the inky darkness in the Johnson Sea-Link, a submersible operated by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla. Outfitted with robotic arms, lights and video cameras, the submersible is made of a single large acrylic sphere for maximum visibility and can carry up to four people to depths of 3,000 feet, well within the bounds of the beast's apparent home. Teaming up with the scientists will be National Geographic, which plans to televise the encounter.

"If we find one and film it, that would be absolutely spectacular," said Roper, who seems to have no fear that the submersible will be wrapped in giant tentacles and crushed or crippled. "A few minutes of film would show a lot," he said. "Seeing a giant squid from a submersible would open a new world of understanding."