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  t's safe to say that there are no sea monsters. But one creature surely comes close: Architeuthis dux, the giant squid. The basic body plan of Architeuthis is the same as its smaller squid cousins: a muscular, torpedo-shaped body, or mantle, leading seamlessly into a head with a parrot-shaped beak and two large eyes; a funnel for water-jet propulsion; eight strong, stout arms and two long, prey-grabbing tentacles (all ten covered with rows of suckers). But the giant squid, the world's largest invertebrate, takes these elements to truly monsterish extremes. Average-sized beasts are 20-40 feet long, with eyes as big as volleyballs (they're the biggest of any animal). The largest specimen recorded measured a nightmarish 60 feet long and weighed nearly a ton. It's doubtful any Architeuthis ever wrestled a ship to a watery grave, as legend once held. But such impressive proportions could understandably have given sailors pause (and inspired writers like Jules Verne, whose TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA featured an encounter with a colossal squid).

Giant squid: Courtesy American Museum of Natural History Library. Photo: Portia Rollings
Carcasses washed ashore have provided much of what we know about the giant squid.
Giant squid typically live at depths ranging from about 700 to over 3000 feet, where they're the principal prey of the deep-diving sperm whale. (Indigestible squid parts, like the beak and muscular mantle, form into a waxy lump in the sperm whale's stomach called ambergris. The valuable substance is used both as a spice and to fix the scent of perfumes.)

Architeuthis carcasses have washed ashore on beaches the world over -- Newfoundland, Norway, the United States, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa, for example -- and yet the animals remain an enigma to scientists. No one, in fact, has ever observed a giant squid in its natural habitat (nor have any ever been caught alive). It's not for lack of trying. Zoologist Clyde Roper, a curator of invertebrates at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, has made a career out of studying the giant squid -- and trying to track one down.

In 1997, Roper and his colleagues traveled to the Kaikoura Canyon, off New Zealand's South Island, on a well-publicized expedition to videotape the elusive creature in its own realm. Kaikoura, a deep chasm accessible only to submersibles, is known to be home to both giant squid and the sperm whales that feed on them. Using the manned research submersible Johnson Sea-Link, the team spotted sperm whales and a host of other unusual organisms. But the giant squid eluded them. This past February and March, Roper and crew returned to Kaikoura to give it another shot, this time using a one-man submersible called Deep Rover. Although the squid were obviously nearby -- during the course of the expedition, six new specimens of the squid were collected in the nets of fishing boats -- Architeuthis, once again, escaped the researchers' preying eyes.

-- By Kathy Svitil

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