Other Work

Pursuing the Giant Squid in Its Natural Habitat
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | June 18, 1996

One day about 33 years ago, Clyde Roper hacked open the beached carcass of a sperm whale that was still warm, waded through the black innards as far as the third stomach, reached in up to his shoulder and brought up a handful of sharp squid beaks -- all that was left of the whale's last supper.

With that trek into the leviathan's belly, the Smithsonian zoologist began a lifelong pursuit of what he calls "one of the last great mysteries in the sea." He is determined to lead the first expedition ever to find and film the giant squid in its natural habitat, somewhere in the perpetual midnight between 1,000 and 3,300 feet below the surface. And he intends to use sperm whales -- the squid's natural enemy -- bloodhounds to point the way.

The inspiration for countless mythical sea monsters, the giant squid is most familiar to the general public as the fictional terror that writhed through Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and more recently Peter Benchley's "The Beast" (a novel also rendered as a TV movie).

But the beast is real. Scientists now know that Architeuthis (Greek for "chief squid," pronounced ark-ih-TOOTH-iss) can grow to almost twice the length of a city bus and can weigh more than a ton. It has eyeballs the size of a human head (the largest in the animal kingdom) set in a blood-colored, torpedo-shaped body. It has thousands of suckers lining its eight arms -- each as thick as a muscleman's thigh -- and a pair of longer tentacles that Roper compares to great bungee cords, which it uses to draw smaller animals into its slashing beak. And this predator is jet-propelled.

To humans, however, its deep lair is almost as alien as a distant planet. Despite repeated efforts, no scientist has seen Architeuthis alive in its natural habitat. No one yet knows how it behaves in the wild, how it hunts, what it eats, how it reproduces or in what position -- head up or head down -- it "hangs."

"We know more about long-extinct dinosaurs than we do about giant squid," Mr. Roper said.

Mr. Roper, 58, has been called the Ahab of squid after the demon-driven sea captain who hunted the white whale in "Moby-Dick." Surrounded by squid specimens in jars, squid cartoons, squid toys, squid coffee cups and other squid artifacts in his laboratory in the bowels of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in the District of Columbia, he seems well-cast for that role, with his chin fringe of salt and pepper beard and a broad New Hampshire lilt in his speech. But his connection to Architeuthis, he insists, is "a passion, not an obsession. . . "

Mr. Roper worked his way through school as a lobster fisherman and discovered a new squid species while working on his master's thesis. "I was hooked." For three decades, he has sailed the oceans, studying cephalopods ("head-footed" carnivores, including octopuses and cuttlefish as well as all kinds of squid).

Having decided that the way to his heart's desire was through a whale's stomach, Mr. Roper began years ago interrogating fishermen about the contents of whale vomit. He learned that virtually every harpooned sperm whale (before harpooning was banned) had a squid carcass inside. Indeed, whales' intestines produce ambergris, a grayish, waxy substance used in perfumes especially to help them pass those indigestible squid beaks. Mr. Roper estimates that a 50-ton sperm whale might eat three or four half-ton giant squids a day. . .