20 February 1999

National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research - NIWA
Great Point, Wellington, New Zealand

Recently, a number of giant squid have been caught in the large, deep-water fishing trawls in the waters around New Zealand and Australia. One in particular, caught just a few weeks ago in the waters just south of Kaikoura Canyon, was recovered in excellent condition and was awaiting Clyde's arrival, safely stored in a large, walk-in freezer here at the NIWA lab. Because of the relative rarity of well preserved specimens, whenever one is found, there is an opportunity to learn something new about this elusive creature.

Every so often, a large refrigerated truck pulls up to NIWA's back door and deposits a large bag or box containing the frozen remains of some sea creature that has been found. In addition to his job as curator of the collection of marine organisms, Steve O'Shea is also the guy that most fisherman know as the person who wants any giant squid caught in one of their trawl nets. Some fishing boats have observers on deck who quickly bag and freeze any squid that may come onboard - not an easy task when you are faced with a 200 kilogram or more mass of very unresponsive squid on the heaving deck of a working fishing boat.

For the past few days, this specimen has been sitting on one of the large dissection tables at the NIWA lab, thawing gradually, awaiting today's activities.

Last night, Clyde and Steve went through many of the published reports on giant squid observations in an effort to come up with a list of all the key measurements that Clyde and Mike would be making the next day. This list filled several pages of Clyde's red notebook. Some of the measurements, like mantle length, mantle width, and arm length are fairly obvious. Several, like the thickness of the mantle, or the circumference of each arm at the base, were less obvious and a little more difficult to take.

Based on this specimen, there is no doubt that giant squid contain the dark, sepia-colored ink that we associate with the smaller, more familiar squid. The entire squid, and all of us, were covered with it. Clyde took a hose and very carefully washed the entire squid. In the process, he gave me a quick lesson in giant squid anatomy pointing out such features as the large, parrot-like beak at the base of the 8 arms, and the two, very large gills resting inside the mantle cavity.

Once the squid had been thoroughly cleaned and arranged, the work of taking the measurements began. Using a long piece of string and a measuring board, Mike and Clyde measured widths, lengths, diameters, circumferences and thicknesses of many things that I had never heard of in my life. Ingrid stood by with a red notebook calling out each measurement that needed to be made and carefully recording the number that was given to her, and repeating it for confirmation.

Through the morning and into the late afternoon, the measuring, counting, and sampling continued until finally, everything that needed to be measured, counted or sampled, had been. Because this particular specimen, which according to Clyde was the most perfectly intact one that he had ever worked on, was destined for display in a museum, it needed to be preserved until it could be put on exhibit. Since there are few containers that could contain something this big, Steve spent about an hour injecting over 5 liters of formalin into it with a large syringe before moving it into a large, coffin-like metal box filled with the preservative. However, one of the things that most of us commented on during the day was how relatively clean and fresh the squid actually smelled. Half expecting to be overwhelmed by the smell of either rotting flesh or ammonia as is described in some of the giant squid literature, it came as a surprise that the odor was like being in a well maintained fish market.

. Later that evening, mind you it was Saturday, at least 10 people from the lab showed up to help us move the squid from the dissecting room, clear across the NIWA campus and into the formalin tank. One of the things that has really impressed me in these first few days has been the helpfulness of all the people that I have met. I can't imagine many other organizations where so many people would both willingly and quite happily come back into work on a Saturday night.

Getting a very heavy giant squid through a narrow doorway was no easy task, but remarkably it went off without a hitch and the squid was carefully placed into a large, stainless steel tank filled with 10% formalin solution. When it was over, the three squid guys knelt besides the tank and smiled broadly.

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