Examining the Colossal Squid

It sounds like something out of a bad monster movie: a team of scientists busily examines the thawing carcass of a 900-pound colossal squid. They've kept it frozen for more than a year inside a walk-in freezer ever since a commercial fishing crew hauled it up from the chilly depths of the Antarctic last January, half dead and clinging to a giant toothfish, and it now sits floating in a massive temperature-controlled tank filled with an icy saline solution just above freezing. The scientists, some in white coats and waders, others in scuba gear, have only four hours to study the 30-foot-long specimen before its rubbery, pink tissue begins to decompose and they have to inject it and fill the tank with formaldehyde. Until then, they rush to perform a battery of tests, studying the suckers and hooks on in its tentacles, measuring its sharp, birdlike beak, examining the contents of its stomach, collecting tissue samples for DNA analysis, trying to determine its sex, its age. All the while, the creature's eyes, which are the size of dinner plates and thought to be the largest in the animal kingdom, stare lifelessly ahead. Surrounding the chaos, is a cable-TV camera crew, recording the details of this rare autopsy for a documentary.

This will be the scene Wednesday at a facility outside Wellington, New Zealand, where for the last year, marine scientists and staff of the Museum of New Zealand have been trying to figure out just how to defrost and examine the largest known specimen of colossal squid without damaging it. If everything goes accordingly, the squid will end up on display at the museum later this year, encased in a big Plexiglas tank and—ideally—fully intact. "It sounds simple, just defrost a big lump of dead squid, right? But so much can go wrong," says Steve O'Shea, director of the Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute at the Auckland University of Technology, and one of the world's foremost squid experts. He and his colleagues have spent the better part of the last year pondering the challenge of defrosting the half-ton specimen, which remains tangled in sea netting and stuffed into a large plastic bin, smushed like an accordion. The problem with defrosting something so large is that at room temperature, by the time its insides have thawed, the outer flesh will have already begun to rot. At one point, they considered using an industrial-size microwave, but figured it was too risky. "I know it can be done," says O'Shea. "But it wouldn't have looked good if we boiled the thing."

Last fall, they decided that the safest way was to submerge the carcass in a tank of icy saltwater and have it slowly thaw over the course of a couple days. But even that isn't foolproof. Two weeks ago, O'Shea and his Auckland University colleague Kat Bolstad, along with the museum's national environment director Dr. Carol Diebel, decided to try a test run with a chunk of ice about the size of the frozen squid and submerge it into the tank to see how it would react. The ice ended up cracking after only a few minutes, so they lowered the temperature and extended the expected time of defrosting to about four days. "We've had to constantly rethink this," says O'Shea. "We can't afford to get complacent now." The biggest challenge, he says, is controlling the temperature in the defrosting tank, which will have water circulating through it, but also do it in a way that, considering the public fascination, has some entertainment value. "There's nothing worse to look at than a big block of frozen squid," jokes O'Shea. The entire process will be broadcast on the museum's Web site and also filmed by the Discovery Channel for a documentary to be released in the fall. "This is science as theater," says Diebel. "It's like when they uncovered that woolly mammoth a few years ago. You want to document and record it because of the level of interest, but also you have to take every precaution because once this process is started, there's really no stopping it."

On Sunday, a forklift slowly removed the squid from the freezer and eased it into the slurry-filled tank. For the next two days, O'Shea and his team will monitor the thawing process, attempting to remove the netting and allow the squid to expand to its normal size, thought to be about 30 feet. Once its completely thawed, the race against the clock begins. "If it starts to smell, then we'll know we don't have a lot of time," says Diebel.

One of the first things that O'Shea hopes to do is to measure the creature's beak. The largest one on record, which was removed from the stomach of a sperm whale, is 49mm. "If this one is less than that, I'll be able to turn around and say guess what? They get bigger than this," says O'Shea, who will also try to quickly determine the sex of the squid. If it's a male, that would also indicate that there are bigger colossal squids out there, as females tend to be larger. "I'd love it to be a male," O'Shea says.

Once measurements are taken, construction on the Plexiglas display case will begin, while the squid sits in formaldehyde for the next several weeks, possibly shrinking to a third of its full size. It will then have to be transported a few miles away to the museum, likely put on the bed of a truck and driven carefully through "very narrow, winding roads," says O'Shea. The museum is still working out the logistics of how to fit the giant display case into its gallery—which might take a bit of remodeling; O'Shea speculates that they might have to dismantle the side of the building and load it in with heavy-duty cranes. There are also safety issues at stake. The display case will be filed with glycol, a colorless, odorless syrupy liquid that is both toxic and flammable. Any break in the display case would spell a major disaster.

If dealing with a dead squid is exciting, imagine the thrill of encountering a live one in its own habitat. O'Shea believes this is possible: just two years ago, a team of Japanese researchers shot the first footage of a live giant squid in waters of the coast of Tokyo. "I don't think it's going to be difficult at all for the first person to raise the money it'll take to put some cameras down there and lure one in. They're such an aggressive creature, all you'd have to do is stick a dead cow on the end of the hook. It's the T. rex of the ocean."