John Bennett is used to the monotony. As captain of a New Zealand commercial fishing boat, he's accustomed to spending months at a time afloat in the Antarctic Ocean, staring at—well, nothing. "Just ice really, lots and lots of ice," says Bennett. "Sometimes, not even a seabird." On a particularly calm day in late January, Bennett was tending to his deep-sea fishing lines—each one 2,000 meters long (nearly a mile and a quarter), and sporting up to 10,000 baited hooks—in hopes of a major toothfish haul. Suddenly, the calm was shattered—by the sight of a colossal squid surfacing near the stern. The beast, a 33-foot-long adult male weighing half a ton, had wrapped itself around one of Bennett's lines. "It was just this great big brown shape," recalls Bennett, who was watching from the bridge. "It came up right alongside us. Everyone was yelling and screaming."
Bennett hurried to the deck to confer with Geoff Dolan, an observer from the New Zealand Ministry of Fisheries who was on board. International law requires that anything caught in Antarctic waters must be kept onboard and documented to guard against overfishing. So Bennett really didn't have a choice but to haul in the squid. "We decided to get him onboard in as good a condition as we could," says Bennett. "If we'd released him, he wouldn't have survived." By then the crew had gaffed the creature in an attempt to get it off the line. But its grip was tight, both on the line and on the five-foot-long toothfish he was eating. "He wasn't giving up that fish," says Bennett. "When we finally pulled him in, the fish was half-eaten."
What Bennett and his crew pulled in that day turned out to be the largest colossal squid ever recovered—cause for considerable excitement aboard his ship, the San Aspiring, and around the world. As word of the catch spread late last month, the news wires buzzed with squidmania. WORLD'S LARGEST INVERTEBRATE CAPTURED read the headlines. If cut up for calamari, the stories said, the squid would produce rings the size of tractor tires. As word got out that the catch had actually been recorded on video, Bennett found himself in the middle of an international bidding war.
The colossal squid, it seems, is one of those creatures that captures our imagination, largely because it is so rarely captured. Including Bennett's catch—and a 20-foot female he found floating dead in 2003—only a handful have ever been recovered. Most of them were just damaged fragments—a tentacle here, a dorsal fin there. The species wasn't even identified until 1925, when pieces of one were found inside the stomach of a sperm whale. More than a century after Jules Verne popularized the creature as a mythic, ship-wrecking monster in "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea," the colossal squid remains very much a scientific mystery.
"We know relatively nothing about them," admits Steve O'Shea, director of the Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute at the Auckland University of Technology and one of the world's leading squid experts. O'Shea says they are as long as their cousins, the giant squid, but much heavier—and, O'Shea believes, more aggressive predators. Bennett's first catch helped fill in some blanks; his latest catch, at 990 pounds, is nearly three times the weight of his last. Which verifies what many scientists have suspected for years but never had the evidence to prove: these creatures get much, much larger than previously believed.
It's a point that O'Shea has been arguing for some time. He often examines the stomach contents of whales stranded off the coast of New Zealand and says that he's found a large number of colossal squid beaks that were clearly from specimens considerably larger than anything ever caught. Three years ago he proposed that a colossal squid could grow as big as half a ton. The reaction of his colleagues? "The scientific community laughed at me," he says.
But a half-ton squid was no laughing matter to Bennett and his crew. Getting it aboard took nearly two hours. It was slippery, Bennett said, much more "gelatinous" than his previous squid quarry. Though he says he never felt threatened by the creature, Bennett did get a close-up view of its massive beak, which he believes could have easily crunched his forearm. "Being alongside a creature like this is just awesome," he says. "It's easy to see why outlandish stories about them get stretched out."
Dolan, the Ministry of Fisheries observer, remembers being surprised at how docile and sluggish the squid was. "It really didn't put up much of a fight," he says. "Its tentacles were moving back and forth, but that's about it. It certainly wasn't grabbing crew members and pulling them back into the sea."
As it happens, Bennett had brought along a video camera in order to film a small documentary about Antarctic toothfishing for a New Zealand TV station (that's Chilean sea bass to you and me). He was able to capture a good bit of footage of the squid being hauled in. Bennett confirms that a production company in Auckland bought the footage, though he declines to specify what he was paid. An official with the Ministry of Fisheries told NEWSWEEK that offers to buy the footage had been pouring in and that some were "longer than a telephone number." Bennett said that a documentary featuring the coveted footage should be released sometime in April.
Once aboard, the squid was lowered into the ship's cargo hold and put on ice for the next two weeks as Bennett and his crew chugged 1,700 miles back to the southern coast of New Zealand. The squid remains frozen solid as preparations are being made to hand it over to the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. That should happen on March 11, O'Shea says. But first, museum officials have to figure out how to store the thing. "The problem is we haven't seen it yet," says museum spokesperson Jane Keig. "We need to get it here to see how we'll preserve it."
That won't be easy, says O'Shea. "We're dealing with a 450-kilogram frozen lump of flesh. We've got to have a specially designed tank constructed." O'Shea estimates that it could take up to four days for the squid to completely thaw out, a delicate process that will leave him and his colleagues only a small time frame in which to take samples and examine it. Still, those precious minutes could prove more valuable than years worth of colossal squid research. "The scientific value is enormous. It'll more than double our knowledge," says O'Shea, who hopes the research will shed light on the species' hunting and mating behavior, its age and its intelligence (which O'Shea already suspects to be fairly negligible). The brain of a 275-kilogram giant squid is only about 20 grams and shaped like a doughnut, he says, "There's not a lot of comprehension going on up there." Might the colossal squid be brighter than its smaller cousin? "Doubtful," says O'Shea. "In all likelihood, it's one of the stupidest creatures in the sea."
As O'Shea prepares to study the half-ton specimen, he remains convinced there are bigger squids still to be found at sea. "There's probably a female out there that's a full ton," he says, noting that females tend to be half again as large as their male counterparts. Until Bennett sails again, it seems, the half-ton specimen will just have to do.