It’s not every day you get to eyeball a Giant Squid. Not quite as big as saucers, but the eyeball in question has the measure of me. It’s a lens with the power to light up its prey in the murky underwater world of the South Ocean. Seemingly frozen in mid swim, one of its arms curves menacingly upwards, revealing a row of perfectly-formed suction cups. This giant squid (Architeuthis dux) is long since dead of course, now stretched out on a table in the basement of Auckland Museum. For all that it looks like it was freshly washed up on a beach; this is actually the result of expensive surgical handiwork normally reserved for preserving human tissues.
‘It’s called plastination,” explains Janneen Love, exhibition developer for The Poisoners! exhibition at Auckland Museum. “It’s like extreme plastic surgery for squids.’
Plastination replaces fat and body fluids with silicone to give specimens a freakily life-like appearance. The ‘operation’ was carried out at Von Hagens Plastination facility in China, where they specialise in animal plastinations. Dr Gunther Von Hagen invented the plastination process more than 30 years ago and the technique has since become popular in universities and museums. Von Hagens was behind the hit exhibition Body Works, which gives visitors an up-close-and-personal look at the workings of 200 real human bodies, complete with organs and transparent body slices.
AUT University’s Earth and Oceanic Sciences Research Institute donated two squids to Dr. von Hagens and they were the first giant squid specimens to be plastinated. The entire process took two years, and getting a specimen with no skeleton to look natural was a challenge. Former AUT marine biologist Steve O’Shea told National Geographic magazine that ‘the giant squid – rare, delicate, and boneless – were the institute’s biggest plastination challenges yet’. The squid on display, which was plastinated at a cost of around NZ $1.5m, is on loan to the Museum for the duration of The Poisoners exhibition. In a series of talks at the Museum next year, Dr Kat Bolstad will explain the plastination process and background the stealth, diversity and bottomless appetites of these amazing invertebrates.
From tip to tentacle, this giant squid is an impressive 4880mm long and will be housed in one of the biggest display cases ever to be exhibited at Auckland Museum. Although more robust than a live specimen, the giant squid requires careful handling. It takes a five-strong team to carefully flip over the giant.
Production manager Andrew Jary says lighting objects is also a complex business. ‘If the lighting is too harsh, you can cause irreversible damage to objects. For natural history collection objects, we generally keep the light levels low, but because this squid is essentially plastic we can light it at a higher level.’
Love says many of the Museum’s natural history collection objects have never been on display before. ‘It’s a fabulous chance to see these creatures up close and personal.’
In a few days, the squid will be moved into the exhibition space, or more specifically a tank owned by the dastardly marine biologist Alain “Sharky” Coasteau. Visitors beware! This squid will be just as terrifying up close as the squid that lurked Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
SNEAKY SQUID FACTS
Giant squid (not to be confused with colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, found only in the Antarctic) reach lengths of up to 13m and weights of up to 275kg (in large females; males are slightly smaller). They are found throughout the world’s non-polar oceans (including around New Zealand), most commonly at depths of 200–600m. Healthy adult giant squid do not come to the surface.