Operation Calamari: How the Smithsonian Got Its Giant Squids

After a decade on view, these cephalopod specimens have a growing fan base

Spanish giant squid moved out of formalin at Smithsonian
Scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland extract a giant squid from its original formalin preservative. NMNH

Over a decade ago, in 2005, the Smithsonian was on the hunt for a giant squid. The new Sant Ocean Hall, then under development at the National Museum of Natural History, would ideally feature the to-be-acquired specimen as its pièce de résistance. At the time, only a couple of these mysterious creatures had been glimpsed alive in nature, and the majority of giant squid science had been surmised from scattered, broken specimens collected from the bellies of sperm whales or carcasses rotting on sandy beaches.

The truth was, the museum already had a giant squid in possession, courtesy of the Smithsonian’s chief squid researcher, zoologist Clyde Roper, who has pioneered about 150 of the last five decades’ most groundbreaking squid discoveries.

But the museum’s original specimen was less than ideal: a wave-battered female that had washed up on the shores of Massachusetts in the mid-1980s. In the wake of a death at sea, Squid 1.0, thrashed and stripped of much of her outer layer of skin, had seen better days. Roper, however, had been too excited by the prospect of finally getting “eyeball to eyeball” with his favorite animal to let a single squid pass him by. He leapt into a truck to haul her body down to Washington, D.C. from a beach on Plum Island, Massachusetts—only to be pulled over by a dubious policeman on the return trip. Fearing a speeding ticket, Roper set forth the best defense he had: little-known facts about his backseat passenger. “[The policeman] was completely hooked,” Roper reflects. “He just thought it was so cool.” Before long, the policeman was grinning ear to ear and sending Roper on his way.

Roper still marvels that a giant squid was able to spare him a hefty fine. For that policeman and the rest of the public, the rarity of these creatures and their fearsome appearance often evoke the stuff of myth—the Kraken and other imaginary sea creatures. But their biology was being revealed. Females, which grow larger than males, can reach more than 50 feet from end to end. Up to two-thirds of their length are accounted for by gargantuan feeding tentacles that are tipped with clusters of powerful suckers and deployed against prey and predators alike—and perhaps even their own kin. We now understand the elusive giant squid to be notoriously bellicose, engaging in frequent brawls that occasionally end in cannibalism. Meals are funneled towards the squid’s razor-sharp beak, which can julienne food into bite-size pieces that are subsequently pulverized and rammed down its throat by a toothy tongue-like organ.

In the 20 years since Roper's initial find, the world had only grown hungrier for more (scientifically, at least; Roper confirms that giant squid tastes intolerably bitter). And so when word arrived at the Smithsonian that a female giant squid had been ensnared in the nets of a baffled fisherman, the museum’s Elizabeth Musteen was overjoyed. As project manager for the new Ocean Hall, she herself had been trawling for squid, except her lures had been entirely on dry land.

Musteen, now the museum’s chief of exhibit production, recruited Roper and Michael Vecchione, a curator on the Ocean Hall team, to leverage their scientific connections at the Coordinadora para el Estudio y la Protección de las Especies Marinas, the institution that had taken charge of the new female squid. They quickly confirmed that their collaborator was willing to send not only the female, but also a smaller male specimen that a fishing boat had uncovered just days prior. It was a dream come true.

The only problem? Both giant squids were half a world away, in Spain.

original 1980 giant squid roper
Clyde Roper admires the female giant squid he collected from Plum Island, Massachusetts, in the 1980s. NMNH

This put Musteen and the rest of the museum team in a bit of a pickle. No commercial airline would be able to accommodate the specimens, and there wasn’t exactly an option at FedEx for giant squid-sized cargo—especially considering that both squids had already been preserved in several hundred gallons of formalin, an alcohol-based fixative. As a further complication, new museum safety restrictions specified that a maximum of only ten gallons of alcohol could be on display in the exhibition hall at a time. With both squids submerged in a couple thousand gallons of formalin, the addition of these specimens were likely to raise an eyebrow or two. But before that could be addressed, the squids had to at least cross the Atlantic.

Undeterred, Musteen arranged a meet-and-greet with her tentacled potentials in Spain in December of 2006. As she suspected, the new specimens were pristine—potential marvels for the public and scientists alike. Musteen and the Ocean Hall team simply had to have them. The only question was how.

Transportation of the Spanish squid was tabled against a steady flurry of other preparations as the Sant Ocean Hall put its final features into place. Before anyone knew it, 2008, the year of the exhibition’s grand opening, had arrived. But the squids were still stuck in Spain.

Musteen began to panic. Not wanting to betray her anxiety, she played it cool, concealing the bags under her eyes and wringing her hands only in the privacy of her own office. She had already exhausted every resource or potential lead she could dream of, but was only hitting brick wall after brick wall. Transporting scientific specimens was dubious; transporting rare, nearly impossible-to-find scientific specimens immersed in a highly flammable, biohazardous material was inconceivable. By the time late May rolled around, Musteen finally had to openly concede defeat to the squids. “I just had no idea how to get those suckers here,” she admits.

To her dismay, the rest of the museum staff was stumped as well. Then, someone ventured a joke: “Well, they were able to transport that orca from Free Willy in a cargo plane. Why don’t we call the Navy?”

It was absurd. But maybe what the most preposterous of problems needed was the most preposterous of solutions. And at this point, with a September 2008 deadline at her throat, Musteen was willing to consider anything.

Impossibly, one of the museum staff had an oceanographer contact in the Navy. Musteen threw caution to the wind and dialed him up, unsure of how or what to say. “You moved a whale,” she began. “Can you move a squid? It’s a lot smaller.” It was true—Keiko of Free Willy fame had clocked in at over 9,000 pounds. The female squid was 300-some pounds at the time of her death, and she’d shrunk in the formalin.

The other line was silent for what seemed like an eternity. Then, the oceanographer erupted in laughter. “Well, I don’t know,” he chortled. “But I guess we can check into it!”

Operation Calamari had begun.

giant squid full length
Arrayed at full length, the female giant squid measured 36 feet long at the time of her capture, 22 feet of which were accounted for by her feeding tentacles. NMNH

Within half a day, the team had identified a naval officer who offered to fly the squids out of a base in Roda, Spain. Ángel Guerra, Roper and Vecchione's scientific collaborator in Spain, drained the specimens down to about 400 gallons of formalin total and drove the seven hours from Asturias to Roda with the preserved pair in tow. He arrived, much to his chagrin, the evening of July 4, not realizing the naval base would be closed for the American holiday.

Saddled with precious cargo and not wanting to turn back, Guerra set up camp for the night. The squid pair spent the night with him in the naval base parking lot, glistening under the quiet stars as fireworks lit the skies ablaze an ocean away. Finally, early the next morning, both squids were loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane and flown post-haste to the U.S.

When the shipment, affectionately nicknamed VIS for Very Important Squid, landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Musteen anxiously called in to confirm its arrival. The serviceman who picked up the phone nearly burst with excitement when she identified herself. “You’re the squid chick!” he gushed. “Everyone knows about the squid.”

At Andrews, the squids were transferred into a 400-ton fiberglass coffin, emblazoned with a thick coating of stickers dubbing it “Property of the U.S. Navy” and “Property of the U.S. Air Force” in assertive bold typeface, and shipped to the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland, where they at long last passed into the hands of giddy researchers and museum staff. The “squid chick” could finally sleep—for a night or two, at least.

But in the coming weeks, the museum researchers and staff realized they had their hands full. Guerra made his own, far less cumbersome trip across the Atlantic to oversee the squids’ unveiling. Together, the team worked tirelessly, their efforts culminating in a bleary all-nighter as the squids were finally drained of the last of the formalin and immersed in a new experimental preservative just weeks before the hall’s grand opening. Then, a few days before the exhibition premiered to the public, the squids received their first visitor—President George W. Bush.

“He thought Operation Calamari was the funniest thing he had ever heard,” Musteen recalls.

male giant squid national museum of natural history
The male giant squid, the smaller of the two Spanish specimens, is suspended upright in an experimental preservative. NMNH

In the nearly 50 years since Roper first became enamored of giant squid, he muses that the public has finally begun to shed the lore of treachery that once sullied these creatures’ reputation. At the end of it all, he hopes only to dispel the myth of their villainy. In January of 2012, a live giant squid was caught on tape for the first time in history in Japanese waters. But for Roper, this is not enough. He dreams of descending to the bottom of the sea to observe the creatures at peace in their natural habitat—not as fearsome beasts, but as alluring, gentle giants of the deep. Even their most terrifying qualities are no more than practical tools for their survival.

Giant squid eyes are the size of dinner plates, the largest in the animal kingdom. The accompanying visual acuity guards against attack from the squids’ most infamous predator, the sperm whale, which the squid can spot from almost 400 feet away—a distance long enough to qualify as a par-three golf hole. What’s more, while their brains may be unimpressive in size, giant squids are among the most intelligent of invertebrates. And as it turns out, being smart and feisty gets you far: all giant squid in the Earth’s seven seas belong to a single species, Architeuthis dux, that has single-handedly dispersed into the farthest corners of the world. “Just because they’re big animals that doesn’t mean they’re vicious and dangerous,” Roper says. “If you’re going to survive, you need to be equipped. Everyone needs their monster one way or another, but if you’re going to have a giant squid as your monster, at least let’s tell the truth about it.”

With more than 6 million visitors a year, the National Museum of Natural History is certainly well-positioned to spread the word, according to Musteen. In her 22 years at the museum, the last ten working in an office not too far from her hard-earned squids, she has watched countless expressions morph into awe and disgust as they zero in on the Ocean Hall’s most prominent display. At the museum, she indicates the usual gaggle of patrons that has flocked around the exhibit. One teenaged girl, tugged along by her younger brother, catches Musteen’s ear.

“I’m going to have the worst dreams tonight!” she squeals, gaping at the behemoth before her. She turns to her brother and stabs an accusatory finger. “This is your fault!”

But her brother hardly notices. He presses his face to the glass until his breath fogs the surface. He is smitten with the female squid suspended before him, her combative tentacles arrayed as if on the cusp of reanimation.

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