A pack of researchers pursues the elusive giant squid

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, December 1998

Calamari for Everyone!
A pack of researchers pursues the elusive giant squid
By Michael Menduno

"A vast pulpy mass," wrote Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, " lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within reach." The animal he was describing? Architeuthis dux, a.k.a. the giant squid or, more ominously, the kraken — a creature so fearsome that Norse mariners once believed its thrashings caused maelstroms. Invoked by the likes of Aristotle and Pliny the Elder, the legendary invertebrate boasts a torpedo-shaped body the length of a Greyhound bus, eyes the size of dinner plates, 10 enormous appendages lined with thousands of suckers, and a parrotlike beak capable of shredding its prey. "One of these Sea-Monsters," noted the Swedish cleric Olaus Magnus in 1555, "will drown easily many great ships."

For all the extravagant commentary it has inspired, however, no modern-day kraken has ever been seen alive, much less captured or filmed. Virtually the only proof of its existence is the 150-odd carcasses that have appeared during the past century. Which is why Emory Kristof, a pioneer of deep-sea photography, may not be overstating things when he pronounces his present quest "the last great animal hunt on Planet Earth."

Sometime this winter, Kristof, whose portfolio of deep-water images includes the first portraits of the Titanic, will launch an effort to become the first person ever to film a kraken. Aided by a six-man team, he'll try to lure one to his cameras with a sophisticated biomolecular baiting system comprised of liquefied fish slurry. Only problem is, Kristof, 56, may find himself upstaged by a handful of rival scientists and researchers who are also hoping to bag the elusive mollusk.

What could prove to be a decisive segment of this scientific steeplechase kicks off in January when Smithsonian zoologist Clyde Roper journeys to the Pacific's Kaikoura Canyon, a submarine trench just off the coast of New Zealand that is something of a mecca for squid-seekers. The 61-year-old Roper, whose moniker is Dr. Squid, has spent the last three decades pursuing his namesake with exotic contrivances such as autonomous robots and cameras mounted with suction cups to the heads of sperm whales. He is hoping to track down and film a Kaikouran specimen by combing a half-mile-deep swath of ocean the size of Manhattan in a $10,000-a-day ship and submersible — an approach that Kristof, who still has no idea of what his own venture will cost, derides as "a colossal waste of money."

Kristof may be less blithe about dismissing the small group of New Zealand researchers involved in something called Project Deep Quest. For the past year, they have been quietly scouring several secret sections of ocean around the Kaikoura with the aid of a sonar-mounted underwater sled in a systematic search that could soon bear fruit, given their intimate knowledge of the area — something Roper and Kristof both lack. "We're happy to assist the Americans, but it gets a bit touchy because they like to keep control," notes Project Deep Quest coordinator Keith Gordon, who regards the foreign interlopers with good-humored skepticism. "Coming down here for a four-week hunt is like going to the casino and expecting to hit the jackpot."

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