Call him Ahab. Or call him lucky. While the whale-obsessed captain of the Pequod was done in by the great white sea monster, Clyde F.E. Roper has remained remarkably intact, even as his pursuit of another legendary leviathan has taken him around the world several times: onto the decks of storm-tossed ships, into submersibles suspended deep under the ocean's surface, onto remote beaches, and back to his laboratory at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History to examine battered and bruised specimens of Architeuthis in his lifelong quest to unravel its secrets.
Architeuthis is, of course, the giant squid—60 feet of cephalopod with unblinking eyes the size of a human head, a parrot-like beak nestled within its eight arms and a pair of grasping tentacles that it may or may not use in its titanic battles with the sperm whale, the bane of Ahab's existence.
Roper, 68, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire, where he worked as a lobsterman between the ages of 14 and 21—but his creatures of choice are cephalopods: octopuses, squids, cuttlefishes and the chambered nautiluses. He studied at the University of Miami under Gilbert Voss, who was then the world's top squid biologist, and he wrote his dissertation on an Antarctic species.
Roper came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966 and has yet to leave, unless you count squid-hunting expeditions. When a dead sperm whale came ashore on a beach in Florida in 1964, Roper hacked it open with an ax to retrieve Architeuthis beaks; when a doctoral candidate cooked up a piece of giant squid in 1973, Roper was among those on the student's committee who tried to eat it (and found it tasted bitterly of ammonia). He has written about 150 scientific papers on cephalopod biology, and in 1984, with Mike Sweeney of the Smithsonian and Cornelia Nauen of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, he wrote the definitive Cephalopods of the World, a new edition of which is in the works. (Roper even turns up, thinly disguised, as "Herbert Talley, doctor of malacology," in Peter Benchley's 1991 novel, Beast, about a sea monster that terrorizes a Bermuda community.)
His current title is zoologist emeritus—"not retired," he is quick to point out—and he remains the world's foremost authority on Architeuthis even though he has yet to see a living adult. In 2004, two Japanese researchers took the first known photographs of a giant squid with a remote-controlled camera submerged 3,000 feet beneath the Pacific Ocean; the photographs were released this past September.
"I think this is really, really exciting," says Roper of the photographs and an 18-foot length of tentacle the animal left behind, "and it's one more step in solving the mystery of the giant squid. I congratulate the [Japanese researchers]." As for devoting his career to such an elusive quest, he says he has enjoyed the chase and feels that his work—documentaries and articles, school presentations and lectures—has introduced people to this "mysterious, wonderful and real monster."
Still, Roper says he longs to see a full-grown Architeuthis feeding, mating or fighting off a sperm whale through his submersible's porthole. "We have the tools and the know-how," he says. "Now all we need is the squid."