Giant squid: steeped in myth -- tasting of brine

It was probably the first Washington press conference at which reporters, always hungry for news, could actually eat the subject of the briefing. Intrepid pressies covering the Giant Squid Press Conference at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History here were invited to dine on fresh squid, along with other Japanese raw-fish delicacies.

The subject of the briefing, a rare giant squid recently acquired by the museum, lay preserved in alcohol in what looked like a mammoth wooden bathtub. Inside was Moby Squid himself, the 30-foot-long, 450-pound giant squid which had washed ashore off Massachusetts's Plum Island in 1980.

Its discovery had sent frissons of delight through teuthologists, who study octopus and squid behavior. It is a rare event, a Smithsonian spokesman explained, for giant squids of this size to be exhibited anywhere in the world; only three have been recovered on the US coast. Because the creatures live at great depths on rocky ocean bottoms, they are rarely caught by fishermen, and a mythology has grown up around them.

This particular squid, which has lost its 18-foot-long feeding tentacles, is now down to about 12 feet in length. The creature also had lost much of its purplish-red outer skin before being exhibited at the New England Aquarium. As a result, the squid looks as though it's made from putty: soft, and pale tan in color, with just a narrow band of maroon around its neck and streaking its remaining tentacles.

This is just a medium-size giant squid, explained Smithsonian zoologist Clyde Roper, who added that the really big ones reach 60 feet from tip of tail to tentacles and top 1,000 pounds. In case that isn't daunting enough, they have eyes larger than automobile headlights, the biggest eyes in animal creation.

Reporters listened as avidly as Scouts around a campfire to squid stories told by Dr. Roper. He noted quickly that giant squid have had a bad press down through the ages because of a lack of scientific knowledge of them. ''Tales of massive squid that could sink ships and devour sailors were commonplace'' up until the 1800s, according to museum background notes, until the first specimens were collected. Still, the story of how men came upon some of the first hard evidence of the animal's existence is hardly reassuring:

Three New Zealand fishermen were out in a dory one morning in 1873 tending their nets, says Dr. Roper, when they saw something floating on the surface of the water. One of them poked it with an oar. Suddenly, a giant squid reared up and wrapped its armlike tentacles around the dory. Water rushed in on the frightened fisherman. One of the men, Tom Pickett, grabbed a hatchet and chopped away the tentacles. The squid let go, and the excited fishermen rowed back to shore with their evidence that the supposedly mythical squid existed, but local dogs dragged off most of the evidence.

A few weeks later a local minister discovered that another specimen had been caught in a herring net in a cove and went down to get a specimen, only to be laughed away. He finally offered the fishermen $10 and explained the squid was a present for the Queen, an offer they couldn't refuse. The minister's offer provided one of the first known specimens of a giant squid.

Are giant squids vicious by nature? ''I would like to think not,'' said Dr. Roper. ''Like most creatures, they are not aggressive.'' He says it's a natural reaction for a squid, when threatened by prodding or roping by fishermen, to rear up to protect itself, gripping a boat with its tentacles.

These tentacles are lined with suction cups, or suckers, which Dr. Roper describes as being much like plumbers' plungers. Each sucker can be operated individually and is rimmed with a hard material known as chitin, tough as a parrot's beak, that clamps down on the surface of the prey.

The giant squid's chief predator is the sperm whale, which often engulfs the squid as lunch, but the squid leaves its mark in the form of large ''sucker scars'' on the whales' skin and even in their stomachs. Dr. Roper and fellow zoologist Dr. Kenneth Boss detailed this and other squid lore in an April 1982 article on the giant squid in Scientific American.

Because no living specimen has ever been kept alive in an aquarium or research institution, most of the knowledge about these creatures is gathered from specimens like the Smithsonian's. It has been learned, for instance, that the giant squid swims by jet propulsion, drawing the water into its tube-shaped body and expelling it in a whoosh through a funnel just under its eyes. It is also difficult to tell whether the giant squid is coming toward you or leaving you, unless you know that it is the huge underwater version of a push-pull toy. The long, huge, spaghettilike tentacles may look like the tail, but they're actually the front of the creature as it swims.

It might not be possible to write a doctoral dissertation on ''Squid Literature Through the Ages,'' but there have been a few books in which giant squids figure: A mammoth squid attacked the Nautilus in Jules Verne's classic '' 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea''; in Victor Hugo's ''Toilers of the Sea'' one of the villains is billed as ''a devilfish,'' a variation on the giant squid. Also, Roper and Boss refer in their magazine article to Herman Melville's own description of the giant squid in ''Moby Dick'' as a sea creature of ''vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length . . . long arms radiating from its center and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.'' Captain Ahab may not have seen the giant squid beckon, but that bundle of underwater courage, Jacques Cousteau, has, and writes about the creature as well as its brother cephalopods - octopi and cuttlefish - in ''The Soft Intelligence.'' British scientist Arthur Clarke (''2001: A Space Odyssey'') has also written about them in an early book, ''Deep Range.''

Just in case you should run into one, you might want to know that their cruising speed is 15 miles an hour and that they have, in addition to all those tentacles, the 10-inch diameter eyes, and the suction cups tough as radial tires , another ominous characteristic. Like their smaller squid relatives, they have ink sacs which squirt out large quantities of a thick black dye as an escape reaction. Dr. Roper points out that the ink is not used as a smokescreen to hide the squid; it is used as a diversionary tactic. The thick mass of ink does not dissipate but holds together in the form of a squid. This false body, or ''pseudomorph,'' he says, attracts the attention of the predator who attacks it. Meanwhile, the real giant squid is busy doing his underwater chameleon number, changing colors and sometimes becoming transparent or translucent as he makes his escape.

They don't all make a quick enough getaway: In Japan, where squid fishing is an industry, Japanese fishermen and consumers catch and eat 1 million to 2 million metric tons of squid annually. Some of it is eaten raw, as the Smithsonian served it. (It is a thick, white, gelid, muscular fish that tastes like albino rubber bands dipped in brine. This reporter would rather write about it than eat it.)

The Smithsonian's giant squid will be on display through this summer in the museum's rotunda, a few tentacles away from the African bush elephant. Then it will be returned to the museum laboratory to be dissected and studied in detail by Dr. Roper and other biologists for further information on the life style of the mysterious genus Architeuthism.

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