Oliver Sacks And The Search For The Giant Squid

46:44 minutes

In this archival interview from 1997, Oliver Sacks discusses his book The Island of the Colorblind. Then, the neurologist sits in on an interview with Clyde Roper, a Smithsonian zoologist who was trying to track down the fabled giant squid.

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Segment Guests

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is the author of Musicophilia (Knopf, 2007) and a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. People often ask us about some of our most memorable moments. One of the highlights came way back in 1997. We had planned to talk to neurologist Oliver Sacks about his latest book, The Island of the Colorblind, and at the last moment, we decided to add a second segment to the hour– a conversation with researchers who were hunting for the giant squid.

We were worried that Dr. Sacks might be grumpy about having his segment cut short. But his assistant said, “Giant squid! Dr. Sacks loves squid! Can he stay for that interview, too?” And that day, Dr. Sacks showed up for the interview carrying a toy rubber squid and wearing a t-shirt that read, “I heart cephalopods.” So today, we’re opening the vault, dialing back to 1997, to bring you that conversation. We won’t be taking your calls today.

We’re going to be talking about two special topics this hour. I think there’s a relationship between both of them. We’re talking about giant squid and tropical islands. And my first guest this hour is neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks who I understand is also interested in squid. You know Dr. Sacks from the many books he has written. He has a new book out called The Island of the Colorblind, and it’s published by Knopf.

Let me introduce him formally. He’s professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. And he’s author, as I say, of seven books. And his latest is The Island of the Colorblind, published by Knopf. And Dr. Sacks is here with us in our studios in New York. Welcome back to the program.

OLIVER SACKS: Nice to be here again.

IRA FLATOW: What have you been up to lately? I see you’ve been traveling since your last visit. Went out to Micronesia.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, actually, I went there twice. I’d never been to the Pacific Islands before. And I was fascinated, amongst other things, by some strange neurological disorders which are peculiar to them, but was also my first experience of coral atolls and volcanic islands and that part of the world.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you live on an island in New York. Even most New Yorkers don’t realize that City Island, which you live in, is part of the Bronx.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, actually it was annexed by the Bronx in 1890. It used to be part of Westchester.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re swimming, and you also study nature out there too, because I know, according to your biography, that you raise tropical plants and a special tropical plant.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, my favorite tropical plants are cycads. These are very, very primitive trees which sort of go back before the dinosaurs. And I’ve had a long love affair with them.

IRA FLATOW: Is that love affair something that led you out to the island to look at these?

OLIVER SACKS: Yes, it contributed to that. Because on Guam, where there’s been a very strange, nasty disease for 200 years, one of the suspects are the cycads which grow there which people eat.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that disease and what you were looking at.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, the Native people, the Chamorros, call it Lytico-bodig. Lytico is short for paralytico. It can sometimes take a paralytic form like ALS, sometimes a form like parkinsonism or dementia. It’s a brute of a disease. It’s a killer. At one time, it killed a tenth of the Chamorros. And it reached a sort of peak in the 1940s and 1950s. And there’s been a tremendous number of people who have tried to solve what’s causing it.

It’s not a genetic disease. And people have wondered if there’s anything sort of peculiar in the earth, the soil, the food. And, as I say, one of the suspects, the cycad trees, which grow on the island. Some of the patients who get it seem very similar to my post-encephalitic patients, the patients I described in Awakenings. They can sort of be motionless and transfixed for a very long while.

IRA FLATOW: Why do they suspect that it has to do with the cycad? Now, explain to everybody, this tree is basically vital to just about every walk of life on the island. They have food from it, medicine in the past.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, these are very tough trees. And whenever there’s a typhoon or starvation or whatever, these are the only trees which survive. And their seeds, they’re huge plum-like seeds. They’re very nutritious, but also very toxic. And there has to be a very elaborate preparation. Many other cultures eat cycad seeds and have learned how to detoxify them and don’t come to grief.

But this disease has been getting rarer in the last 30 or 40 years. Cycad eating has also diminished since the second World War with the Americans entering and wheat and rice.

IRA FLATOW: In your book, The Island of the Colorblind, the name of the book– the colorblind, the island. You also went to an island where 12% of the population or more is colorblind.

OLIVER SACKS: I’d heard of this island when I was on Guam. And then I made another visit. Total colorblindness.

IRA FLATOW: They see no colors.

OLIVER SACKS: No colors.

IRA FLATOW: It’s just black and white.

OLIVER SACKS: Black and white. This is very rare, like one in 50,000. The common red/green colorblindness is one in 20, at least among men. But on this island, through a sort of genetic freak and through the fact there was a typhoon in the 1770s, which almost exterminated the population and then the small residue intermarried, this very rare thing, as you say, affects 10%, 12% of the people.

And so it occurred to me, since writing in my last book about a man who lost color vision from a brain injury and at first found it absolutely devastating, because color was so precious to him, I then wondered what would it be like never to have had color, but to have constructed a visual world other ways. And I had never seen such a person. But here on the island it was 10% of the population like this. Almost a community of achromatopes.

IRA FLATOW: How do you deal with– the body always compensates somehow, right?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, these people also have some other problems. They have no cones in their eye. They only have the rods, which we use for night vision. And they’re rather dazzled by daylight. And the detail vision is poorer. But it was obvious that they could identify, say, all the plants on the island. The island is something of a green monochrome. And I had the feeling that their sense of their knowledge of texture and boundary and luminance and so forth was heightened. And they have very, very good night vision. And in a strange way, these people who are seen as partly disabled by day become supremely able by night. So crucial things like the night fishing, which is done with either by the light of the full moon or torches, this has been done by the achromatopes of Pingelap for a century or more. They are superb night fishers.

IRA FLATOW: And you brought them hundreds of sunglasses. To be so sensitive to the sun in an island where the sun is there so long.

OLIVER SACKS: Right. Well, they do what they can with working in shady places or shady occupations. I mean visually shady, not morally shady.

IRA FLATOW: Were they happy to see the sunglasses you brought?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, they seem to be. Although whether how much society will let them keep it, I don’t know. But certainly the immediate impact was delight sometimes. And one could see even with, say, a three-month baby who was showing the symptoms of blinking, squinting. As soon as one put a little pair of sunglasses on, the baby stopped squinting and squalling and sort of looked around attentively.

IRA FLATOW: The doctor who invited you to come out there, what was his name?

OLIVER SACKS: John Steele.

IRA FLATOW: John Steele. You write about him as a doctor who you think originally wanted to get away from it all.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, I’d had a little correspondence with him many years ago when he was an eminent academic physician and neurologist in Canada. But yeah, I think he wanted the island life. He’d read Arthur Grimble’s book, A Pattern of Islands. And his big fantasy was to be an island doctor. And soon after that, in the mid-70s, he went first to Hawaii and then to the Caroline Islands and then to Guam.

IRA FLATOW: Did he realize his fantasy, do you think? Was he happy that it turned out the way he thought it would be?

OLIVER SACKS: I think so. He lives in a village called Umatac, which is, in fact, where Magellan originally landed in 1521. But he lives in the middle of the community, and it’s the most affected community. And he really is a sort of an island practitioner. And he loves that. Although, like everyone else, he has another secret fantasy that he will crack the secret of the Lytico-bodig. And the feeling is if one cracks that, not only will it be tremendously important in itself, but it may give a clue to many other diseases, like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, which it seems a bit similar to.

IRA FLATOW: Do you ever see yourself thinking, gee, I’ll trade one island for another. I’ll trade City Island for–?

OLIVER SACKS: I’ve often wondered about it, sort of a stage three in life. And I was very taken by these tropical islands. I’m also very taken by New Zealand.

IRA FLATOW: New Zealand’s beautiful. You know we’re going to talk in the second half hour about squid, giant squid. I see you carrying a squid with you. That’s another passion of yours.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, it’s been, again, a passion for very, very long while.

IRA FLATOW: How did that start?

OLIVER SACKS: I think it probably started with the Natural History Museum in London where there was a model of a giant squid, and there were many other squids in spirit, in alcohol. And I’ve been interested for a long while. On the paperback of Anthropologist, I have a cuttlefish on the cover. On my notepaper, I have a cuttlefish. I carry one around in the car. And, of course, I was very excited when– one of the great mysteries is that no one has ever seen a giant squid.

IRA FLATOW: Or, no one alive today has, because we do have some pictures of them, I think. We’ll find out. Do you think in another life then, if you were to start over again?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, I used to love marine biology. And one of my closest friends became a marine biologist. And I loved botany. I mean, one has the feeling there are many possible lives one might have taken, but some of the old biological interests are still there.

IRA FLATOW: Do you get time from your work, do you have time off enough of your own free time to explore these other things?

OLIVER SACKS: Yes and no. I mean, I still go to my hospital. the Awakenings hospital. I’ve gone there for more than 30 years now. But I take off when I can. I love scuba diving. And I love rainforests. They’re two favorite–

IRA FLATOW: That’s where I want to go next is one of the rainforests in Central America, Costa Rica. Have you been to–?


IRA FLATOW: Yeah? Which one have you been to?

OLIVER SACKS: Costa Rica. And I get to go to Brazil later this year.


OLIVER SACKS: But they are the two most wonderful and, one fears, most threatened environments.

IRA FLATOW: Head over to our website at sciencefriday.com for more with Dr. Sacks and a video tour of his desk. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re bringing you some classic tape from the Science Friday vaults– a 1997 conversation with neurologist Oliver Sacks about colorblindness, sea creatures, and more. Head over to our website at sciencefriday.com for more with Dr. Sacks and a video tour of his desk.

You’re sitting here wearing a t-shirt with a Portuguese man-of-war on it. So you really have gone the marine route.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, yeah. Though interestingly, this ties up with neurology, in a way, because very, very important work was done on the learning and brains of the octopus. And I was very fascinated by this. These are very, very smart animals, indeed. And in fact, the first models of the plane were built up from observation of octopus planes.

IRA FLATOW: They are smart, aren’t they. Some people consider them the smartest marine organisms, besides dolphins. They’re not mammals.

OLIVER SACKS: You know, certainly when one’s scubaing or whatever, they seem quite different from fish. They will hover in front of you and they will watch.

IRA FLATOW: They’re sneaky, aren’t they. They really plan. They sort of plan things and they’re sneaky.


IRA FLATOW: And, of course, neurologists have learned a lot from very simple– I’m thinking of Eric Kandel’s work with the slugs and things.

OLIVER SACKS: Absolutely. And, of course, with the squids, these incredibly fast tentacles have giant axons, giant nerves. And this is crucial for physiologies.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me ask you about that. If you have a squid that’s 60 feet long or something like that, there’s talk that the dinosaurs may have had maybe remote brains in their bodies, because they get the signals from one end to the other. Could that actually happen in a squid too? Would you need to have a relay station, because those signals don’t travel so far?

OLIVER SACKS: No. I think you have the fastest transmission in the animal kingdom. Besides, I think the dinosaurs were given a sort of a bad press. We’re realizing now that they were very much more active and intelligent and agile. They weren’t these sort of ponderous imbeciles.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. They moved around more like birds, agile and fast moving.

OLIVER SACKS: Yes, certainly some of them.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the islands that you visited, Pompeii, right Dr. Sacks? Legend has it that it was–

OLIVER SACKS: That it was built by a giant octopus called Litakika. And this fascinated me. It was the only cephalopod creation myth I’d ever heard. But they have a real reverence for cephalopods.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet. What would you like to study now, if you could study?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, one of my interests is space.

IRA FLATOW: You told me. You came in wearing this jacket with the patches from all these shuttle launches. You said one of the seeds were– tell us about it.

OLIVER SACKS: One of my good friends, Marsha Ivins, is an astronaut. She’s been up four times in the shuttle. I was down in Cape Canaveral for her last launch and landing. And since I love cycads, I asked if it might be possible to give some seeds a ride. And so in the last shuttle, which went up to the Hubble, some cycad seeds were taken up there. And I think I’m due to get the full story this weekend. I think one or two of them may have germinated in space.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

OLIVER SACKS: So I’d like to think that these cycads as having sort of floated over ocean currents to all the islands of the Pacific, or many of them and may also have had a little taste of space.

IRA FLATOW: We have to watch how they grow. I mean, if they germinated in space, who knows what could happen. Were they unofficial cargo?

OLIVER SACKS: Very unofficial, and maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this.

IRA FLATOW: We won’t tell anybody.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, we won’t tell anybody. It’s just between us.


IRA FLATOW: It’s between us. Is it easy to grow a cycad? Where do you grow them in your home? Up on the windowsill? They’re pretty big plants. They’re like palm trees a little bit, right?

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, they start small. And I think the early stages are sort of delicate. You mustn’t water them too much. I think they like company. They’re males and females, and it’s sort of nice to have them together. One wonders if there are some pheromones or something. They grow best in pairs.

In New York, you can only grow them indoors. In California or Florida, you can grow them outside.

IRA FLATOW: We should have people talk to you, because so many people want to talk to you. 1-800-989-8255. We’re having a good time here. Mike in Rochester, Minnesota, hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIKE: Hi, Dr. Sacks. I’ve read most of your books, I think. You seem to have a fascination with people with exotic disorders. And you seem to particularly enjoy some aspect of that personality type that’s actually a positive, rather than a disorder, like the rug makers on the island, the Tourettic surgeon, or Temple Grandin. And that’s really interesting. What I would ask you to do is to extend that concept toward less exotic disorders, like ADD and bipolar. And it seems to me there’s the beginnings of a strategy for how society might treat those lesser disorders better.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, well I don’t just see people with exotic disorders.

IRA FLATOW: He does have a whole hospital practice here.

OLIVER SACKS: But whatever I see and whomever I see, without denying the problems, I always look for the positive and what one can build up from this. And one can always find positive things and sometimes very unexpected things.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Mike. Let’s go to Theresa in San Francisco. Hi, Theresa.


IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

THERESA: Doctor?


THERESA: My son was in a little remote village in Nicaragua recently. And he visited a family who have two children with very poor eyesight, two little girls. There’s also a boy in the village.

OLIVER SACKS: I missed it. Two little girls with what?

IRA FLATOW: Poor eyesight.

OLIVER SACKS: Oh, poor eyesight. Sorry, yes.

THERESA: They hold hands when they walk around and keep one hand in front. There’s also a boy in the village. It’s a village of only 20 families. There’s no way they’re going to get wonderful medical care. Is there some possible vitamin or something that could help these children? What’s the usual reason for poor eyesight?

OLIVER SACKS: You know, there could be so many reasons. It might be genetic. It might be environmental. It might be a vitamin. For example, vitamin A deficiency is endemic in many, many areas.

IRA FLATOW: Could it be the size of the village, like the island had a very small population?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, conceivably.

THERESA: Yes, this is an island. But yes, maybe there’s some intermarriage. I don’t know.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, I don’t know. Incidentally, one of the things which was in my mind when I went to the island of the colorblind, there’s a wonderful HG Wells story, “The Country of the Blind,” where a traveler blunders into a mountain valley and finds a whole community who can’t see. And first, he thinks he’s going to take over as a sighted person. Then he finds they all beautifully adapted. But they think there’s something wrong with him because he has visions.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks, Teresa, for calling, 1-800-989-8255. Any new expeditions coming up that you’re going to write about as part of a book. You didn’t go down there with the idea of writing a book when you went to these islands, did you?

OLIVER SACKS: No. And even two years ago after I’d been, And I think when we last met, I didn’t think I was going to write a book. But then the memory sort of surfaced again and got me going. It got me thinking and reading. And I often find that happens. It’s only later that the full impact can hit one.

IRA FLATOW: Let it percolate a while.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Sam in Seattle. Hi, Sam.

SAM: Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking my call. I have a comment and then a related question. I was very interested to hear the discussion about The Island of the Colorblind. I have been, since birth, profoundly colorblind. And I have no cone function. And my acuity is actually fairly restricted. I have a lot of the symptoms that your speaker was talking about. My eyes are very light sensitive. I have very dark sunglasses made for me that I wear pretty much any time I am outside. And I have leather shields on the side to block reflected light.

But clinically, I have no color vision according to the fairly sophisticated tests I had done several years ago. But I think I see colors. And I suspect what’s going on is I’ve trained myself that the sort of different shading or intensity of light that some people see as blue or green or red, that I can make those distinctions, to some extent, in intensity. And I’ve trained myself that other people think that’s blue or green or yellow, and my mind sees it as yellow. But I’m clearly not seeing it, I assume, as other people see colors. But I don’t perceive that I live in a totally monochromatic world with shades of black and white and gray, although there are some colors that I just can’t distinguish, like a blue and a green or a black and a red that have very similar depth of color are completely washed out to me, and I can’t distinguish them. But again, clinically based on the tests that I’ve had done, they say I’m profoundly colorblind.

OLIVER SACKS: That’s very, very interesting. I think one could certainly learn to infer a probable color from a mixture of the particular shade and the context. Certainly, the saturated greens and reds would look almost black. And the blues and yellows would tend to look very, very pale. But I agree, our word colorblindness or monochrome doesn’t suit people who just know that they have a very rich world and not one which can be defined reductively like this. There are some conditions in which there may be some functional cones and perhaps a hint of color, and it may be this gentleman in Seattle. By the way, have you been in touch with the Achromatopsia Network?

SAM: No, I have not.

OLIVER SACKS: Because I mention this at the end of my book. There’s a marvelous woman in Berkeley, Francis Futterman, who has reached out to achromatopes all over the world. And she has a website.

IRA FLATOW: Do you know what the website is?

OLIVER SACKS: It’s on the back of my book.

IRA FLATOW: While you’re talking, I’ll find it.

OLIVER SACKS: And this is a very rare and sometimes isolating and misunderstood condition. And people with this now, there are some hundreds of them all over the world who are in contact with each other. And they can share information and strategies and perspectives, and you should know about this [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: What’s her name?

OLIVER SACKS: Her name is Frances Futterman. I’m going to look the same time as you do. It should be on the very– oops, maybe just before the index.

SAM: I was wondering, while you’re looking, did the folks on the island who you studied, what was their perception? Not their clinical perception, but they’re kind of subjective perception of whether they were seeing colors or things in different colors.

OLIVER SACKS: I don’t think they had any thought of this. And they were sort of puzzled by color language, although they would learn to use various terms. Occasionally, when ask some of these people if it were possible, would you like color, the usual answer was that this was a meaningless question. And most of them indicated they felt their worlds were complete, and they wouldn’t know what to do with color. And when asked this sort of question, people would say, would you like X-ray vision? And one would say, no thanks, I’m fine as I am. And they say, sure, so are we. So I think the lack of color, if it’s been from birth, is not felt as a loss.

IRA FLATOW: The Achromatopsia Network, it’s in Berkeley, www.achromat.org– A-C-H-R-O-M-A-T. So you can find it there, either way. Thanks for calling.

SAM: Thank you.

OLIVER SACKS: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Head over to our website at sciencefriday.com for more with Dr. Sacks and a video tour of his desk. I’m Ira Flatow, and you’re listening to Science Friday from NPR.

I guess very few people know people who are. They normally think red/green colorblind is it. They don’t know very many people who are profoundly colorblind.

OLIVER SACKS: I mean, most neurologists and ophthalmologists will never meet an achromatope. This is extremely rare. But still, if you multiply the population of the world, if you divide it by 50,000.

IRA FLATOW: If you see enough people, sooner or later you’ll see everything.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, right. By chance, I thought of this when the lady spoke about the children in Nicaragua, but just near me in the West Village, I see a little boy and girl, a brother and sister, with sort of dark red glasses, and I’ve got to know them now. And they are achromatopes. They have been fascinated by the story of the island. And I think they want to go there and look up their brothers and sisters.

IRA FLATOW: You think working in New York, where there are so many people, you get to see a lot that’s helpful for a physician? You’ve seen all these different kinds.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, in a way, you see almost everything here. Though you also need to go out and make special visits, because you need to see people in their context. And what was so important here was seeing these people, as you say, on a tropical, though monochrome, island, where, in fact, they have a certain cultural place.

IRA FLATOW: Are you going to hang with us for a while? We’re going to talk about giant squid.


IRA FLATOW: Oh, be our guest. So as I say, we’re going to talk to the leader of a project to look and find those giant squid. The giant squid has been the source of all kinds of stories, sailor stories, for centuries. But we know very little about them. And now a group of scientists in New Zealand is trying to change all that. They’re sailing off the coast of South Island in the Kaikoura Canyon. And their goal is to find and photograph a fabled giant squid.

Clyde Roper is the leader of that expedition and a zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. And he joins me now by phone from Kaikoura New Zealand. Welcome to the program.

CLYDE ROPER: Thank you very much. It’s nice to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: Is this a mythical sea creature? Do giant squid really exist?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, the answer is the answer is yes, in a sense, because they certainly are the basis of many, many myths that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. But in fact, these are animals that do exist. We know they exist. We have specimens of them.

The mystery here, really, is that we know absolutely nothing about their biology and habitat and behavior. We know a little bit about their anatomy, simply from examining dead specimens. The point is that no specimen has ever been seen alive in its natural habitat.

IRA FLATOW: And how do you know where to look for one then?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, by detective work. And I think Dr. Sacks will agree that being a scientist is very much like being a detective. And so we just put together bits and pieces of data that have accumulated over the years and have determined that this area in New Zealand would be an area of high potential for finding living giant squid.

IRA FLATOW: Why would you choose that area in New Zealand?

CLYDE ROPER: This area was chosen for three main reasons. One is that there are a number of records in the literature and in newspapers and so forth of giant squids, or bits and pieces of giant squid, that have washed ashore. These are called strandings. Or what we call floaters have been found floating at the surface of the sea. And part of the reason for many of the floating evidences from sperm whales. This area is inhabited year-round by sperm whales. And sperm whales are a major predator on giant squid. We know that, for example, from looking at the stomach contents of sperm whales that have themselves been stranded or back in the days, when they were hunted, the beaks or mouthparts of giant squid have been found in their stomachs.

And thirdly, this area is a region for one of the deepest commercial fisheries in the world– deep sea commercial fisheries– for orange roughy, pokey, and scampi. And occasionally, just occasionally, in the last decade or so, specimens of giant squid have been caught in these very deep sea fishing nets. So this combination of evidence indicates to me and to colleagues that it’s a prime area for finding giant squid.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re bringing you some classic tape from the Science Friday vaults, a 1997 conversation about the search for the giant squid. I’m talking with Clyde Roper, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. And neurologist Oliver Sacks is sitting in on the interview.

So how do you search for it? Do you go scuba diving? Do you have a little robotic cameras? What do you do to look for one?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, certainly not scuba diving, unless you have a gigantic tank. We’re using basically three approaches here. The giant squid, we know, is a deep sea animal.

IRA FLATOW: So it lives far down.

CLYDE ROPER: I beg your pardon?

IRA FLATOW: It lives in very deep water.

CLYDE ROPER: It lives in very deep water. And honestly, that’s about all we know about its habitat. We know it’s deep. We make some other assumptions, which might or might not be correct. But the first phase that we have used and is now just completed is using a little robotic submersible. That is a mini submarine that does not take people. This is called the Odyssey, and that was developed and operated by a team of colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And this was a marvelous little machine that actually can go to depths of over 6,000 meters. But in our case, we worked in waters from 200 to 750 meters. And in the nose of this little vehicle was a highly sensitive deep sea video camera. The vehicle also recorded data for temperature, depth, salinity, and various parameters like that.

The vessel was not attached in any way to the surface ship. It was given instructions in it’s little brain, a computer on board with an onboard navigational system, as well. And at the beginning of each mission, the details of the dive were entered into the computer. The vehicle went down and did its job and came back again.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s what you’re going to be using on this?

CLYDE ROPER: We have already used that. That phase was completed. There are two other phases of the expedition. One is using what’s called a rope cam. And this is digital video equipment installed in a frame that is lowered towards the bottom of the sea and suspended on a rope and with an anchor, usually. Or we can let it drift, as well. And this is being done primarily by a team from National Geographic.

And that also has incorporated with it a baiting system, either bait fish that’s attached out in front of the camera or a system of little barrels that are filled with bait– chum, if you will– fluid liquid bait, which is pumped out into the deep sea. And the idea here, of course, is to attract organisms into the range of the camera.

IRA FLATOW: But you’re not going to try to catch one, are you?

CLYDE ROPER: No, no. No, the objective certainly is not to try to catch a giant squid. The point here is to try to capture it on film to try to get an idea of what it looks like in its natural habitat, how it moves, what its orientation is, and these sorts of bits of information that we have no idea of at this point.

IRA FLATOW: Now you also have what I understand is a crittercam. This is an interesting idea. You’re going to put a camera on a sperm whale’s head?

CLYDE ROPER: Yes, indeed. The crittercam is a fascinating little instrument that is attached to the head of sperm whales. This is developed by a fellow at National Geographic Television. And they’re working with a group down here called Whale Watch Kaikoura. That’s the whale-watching group out of the Kaikoura region.

And the objective here is to place the camera on the head of a sperm whale. And sperm whales dive to great depths. And among their prey, cephalopods, squids mostly, deep sea squids, including giant squid, which must be a favorite meal for a sperm whale. Because the giant squids are so large, it makes sense from the standpoint of energy to catch one great big squid rather than several hundred small squid to make up that amount of weight and volume.

IRA FLATOW: I saw there was mentioned in one news report that possibly you might be taking a mini submarine to go after one of these giant squids.

CLYDE ROPER: Oh, absolutely. That’s the next phase, what we call phase three of this three phase expedition, that started last summer, northern summer, in the Azores, the islands off in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. This phase right now being phase two. Phase three will be next year using a small research submarine called a submersible. That actually will hold four people. The sub that we’re working with is called the Johnson Sea Link operated out of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida.

This will be a multidisciplinary expedition with many biologists and geologists working for up to three months. Included in this will be the continuing search for living giant squid.

IRA FLATOW: Aren’t you afraid of what happened to Dr. Nemo, that you get tangled up by the giant squid, and that it might actually be danger to life and limb?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, no, not really. It, of course, made a great story and a great scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

IRA FLATOW: They’re not vicious and they wouldn’t attack you, if they felt threatened?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, we, of course, really don’t know, because no one has seen one alive in its natural habitat. There are many stories. And some giant squid have reportedly been seen at the surface alive and as the stories go, have attacked boats and ships. But I suspect these animals, if, in fact, they were alive at the surface, might have been very nearly dead or certainly on their way out. And their arms and tentacles might have thrashed around a bit. But it’s hard for me to imagine that an animal whose natural habitat is several hundred to several thousand meters deep is going to be comfortable in attacking ships at the sea surface.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Dr. Sacks, do you want to go on that submarine?

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah, I would love to. Almost as much as I’d like to go on the space shuttle, actually possibly more. Curiously, anticipating today, I read Peter Benchley’s Beast last night, where, of course, the giant squid, the Architeuthis, takes on a monstrous sort of ferocity. I know there are some squids, like Humboldt squid, which are very muscular and can be quite aggressive. But I sort of get the feeling that this is a fairly weakly muscled creature which sort of ambles along. But who knows?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, if you compare the muscular tissue, let’s just say in the body wall, which is called the mantle, the Humboldt squid, of course, is an extremely powerfully muscled animal. The muscle is very thick and tough and powerful. We’ve made many observations on their swimming ability. There is, of course, at least one authenticated report of an attack on humans, on a diver, by these Humboldt squid.

You compare that with the tissue on a giant squid, and you’ll notice that the giant squid tissue is much more loosely consolidated. It has sort of a semigelatinous matrix in it. So it’s not nearly as thick and powerful looking as a Humboldt squid or many of the shallow water oceanic squid. So it probably isn’t that powerful a swimmer. But then again, it probably doesn’t need to be. It’s a huge animal. The largest ever measured is around 60 feet total length. That includes the two long feeding tentacles. So they are massive animals. But they probably don’t have to move extremely rapidly. As far as we know, the only predator, when they get up to be over a certain length, would be the sperm whales themselves.

IRA FLATOW: Tony in San Antonio. Hi, Tony.

TONY: Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. I saw in one of those, I guess, Unknown or Amazing books, a Japanese fishing boat accidentally caught what they thought was a giant squid. It was pretty much decomposed and white. And I was wondering if your guest knew anything about that. And the second question to that would be, if they did find out if that was really a squid, how old would it be, or how old can it survive?

CLYDE ROPER: Well, I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to. Because giant squid, as I mentioned, are found occasionally at the surface and, of course, are found in fishing nets occasionally. It very well could have been a giant squid. Although, if it’s the report I’m thinking of, there are many other, let’s say, undescribable bits and pieces or sometimes huge pieces of organisms, organic material, found at sea. Most of the time, these end up being parts of long dead sperm whales. Usually sperm whales.

And oftentimes, these are washed ashore, and they bear the name of the such and such monster or the such and such blob. And in fact, they are very, very old tissue, mostly connective tissue, of various sorts from a long dead sperm whale. So that’s possibly an explanation for the giant squid on the Japanese ship, especially if it was white. A giant squid, its natural coloration is quite a dark, lovely maroonish red color. But of course, if it were found floating, the skin easily could have deteriorated and rubbed off.

IRA FLATOW: I have a question about what happens in phase three when you go looking for the squid. In wildlife surveys, they usually tag an animal and let it go back. Would you be thinking of tagging squid so you can see where they go and how deep they live and following them around the sea?

CLYDE ROPER: That certainly would be an interesting and desirable thing to do. We now have tags that would be suitable, not only for simply following them around, tracking them, but also for inserting them and getting an idea of their expenditure of energy and this sort of thing. That would be lovely, if we could do that, if we could actually approach a giant squid and implant a small tracking device on it. So that’s one of the things in the works.

One of the other things that I’d like to mention is that the giant squid really has become for many, many children and students sort of the new dinosaur in the last several years. And I get many calls and emails and letters from children who are excited about giant squid. When I say the new dinosaur, of course every child is interested in dinosaurs. And now there’s been a bit of a replacement activity here and some of them switching over to giant squids. And for that reason, I look at the giant squid as sort of an icon for understanding or introduction to the entire deep sea ecosystem. And if we can get children interested in the oceans and in the deep sea through this particular icon, I think that can be a very beneficial way to spark science and math in young students.

And along those lines, next year, we’re hoping to have, with the help of a colleague from NASA, direct satellite links between the submarine and the tender ship with a satellite and then beaming into electronic classrooms not only over the United States, but anywhere in the world where these distance learning centers can be established. So I think this is a marvelous opportunity to bring children and adults as well along on a major exciting research expedition.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and you’re listening to Science Friday from NPR.

See Dr. Sacks, you will be able to talk to him by satellite. We’ll have to get you in a classroom someplace.

CLYDE ROPER: It would be lovely to have Dr. Sacks come along with us. And we have many volunteers. And when he mentioned about going into the submersible, it’s interesting, we have–

IRA FLATOW: I have to tell you, I’ve never seen a guest drool before in my studio.


CLYDE ROPER: Well, people react two ways when talking about going into the submersible. They’re either very, very, very enthusiastic, excited, want to go in, or they just do not want to go near it. You couldn’t, for all the giant squid in the world, there are some people who certainly wouldn’t get into the little submersible.

IRA FLATOW: Pretty claustrophobic. But first you got to find one. This expedition is basically to just see if you can find the squid.

CLYDE ROPER: That’s right. Of course, that’s one of the objectives of this expedition. And it’s sort of the hook for folks to become interested in it. But we’re really interested in finding the relationship between sperm whales and giant squid to try to learn the ecosystem where this interrelationship occurs and to try to understand and gain information and knowledge about this deep sea ecosystem where these two huge animals occur. All of these data will be important for applying to our planning and approach to the next phase with the manned submersible.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Sacks?

OLIVER SACKS: Now, I have to say that some of my sympathies are with the giant squid. And I’m wondering whether you feel they can ever sort of defend themselves appreciably against a sperm whale.

CLYDE ROPER: Well, that’s interesting. And, of course, there are many, many stories and myths about giant squid battling sperm whales, and this has been witnessed at the surface of the sea. I must say, they do have a good defense, because certainly, if they are like all the rest of the cephalopods that we know about, they are very well equipped. They have excellent eyesight. They are able to sense the approach of potential predators and potential nets, perhaps, fishing nets.

So with a few squirts, a few jets, if they can perceive the enemy, they would be able to escape. Obviously, not all of them do. But clearly, all of them do not get captured either. So our sympathies can be with the sweet little giant squid. On the other hand, it’s part of life and certainly part of the life of the sperm whales to be able to feed themselves, as well.

OLIVER SACKS: I had another question, which I think was perhaps already asked about how long these things can live. I was amazed and sort of rather sad when I saw some big cuttlefish to hear that they achieved their size and then died within two years. How does the big squid get it’s size? How long does it live?

IRA FLATOW: Quickly.

CLYDE ROPER: Well, very little is known. But a wee bit of research done indicates that these animals reach their gigantic size of over a ton in perhaps three years or less. And this is really quite staggering for these huge, magnificent animals.

IRA FLATOW: Clyde Roper, thank you. I know you took time out from your day of looking for the squid to talk with us. I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

CLYDE ROPER: Thank you.

OLIVER SACKS: And good luck.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck. Clyde Roper is a zoologist at the Smithsonian institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Also, thank you, Oliver Sacks, for sitting in with me on this one.

OLIVER SACKS: Oh, I loved it. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Oliver Sacks’ new book is The Island of the Colorblind, published by Knopf. And he’s professor of neurology, of course, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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