Titans of Biology: Archie the Giant Squid and Darwin’s Specimens, Part 2

Continued from Part 1

July 8, 2019 — I walked into that large room like the children entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room or Sam Neil jumping out of the jeep to behold the valley of dinosaurs or Ed Harris floating above the ocean-alien worldship.

The large room was full of stainless steel. Stainless steel shelves, stainless steel counters. Also glass. Large tanks and specimen tubes. But most weren’t small bottles of small rodents and lizards. They were giant tubes and full of…every animal: Sharks and platypuses and anacondas and porcupines. Even a coelacanth (in fact, Clive pointed to a pair of scales in a box and told us they were from the original coelacanth that proved the species wasn’t extinct). Some of the tubes had multiple specimens of a single species (much like those tubes of plastic animals you can be at the dollar store), some of the tubes just had decapitated heads for the animals that couldn’t fit even into these giant tubes. A few weren’t submerged in liquid at all. For instance, a pair of rectangular glass tanks atop each other like bunkbeds held a large Komodo Dragon on the bottom and a Giant Chinese Salamander on the top.

But none of that is what pulled my eyeballs out of my sockets and wobbled my knees.

That “He” my friend had mentioned was right in the middle of the room. It was thirty feet long and four or five feet wide, like a coffin stretched to infinity. Its transparent walls were made of inches-thick acrylic, and it sat on a centipede’s worth of thick metal legs to bear its massive weight. Inside, the tank was full of a yellowish, foggy liquid.

Well, that and the carcass of a giant squid.

This frickin’ kraken was tentacle-to-tail more than 28 feet long, a fleshy beige monster that was only slightly less terrifying dead than it would have been alive. And this god-like terror of the deep was named…Archie, a shortening of his scientific name Architeuthis dux.

Archie was caught in March 2004 at the bottom of the world, off the Falkland Islands, near the tip of South America. He was found dead and immediately frozen for posterity. Or cash. I don’t know how the Natural History Museum got him.

Giant squids are one of the top three reasons to love and fear this planet. They live in the deep ocean (Archie was caught at a depth of 720 feet) and are extremely mysterious. We only got our first photo of a living one in 2004, a few months after Archie’s carcass was found. Today, we think the largest giant squids grow to 43 feet, slightly shorter than the much heavier colossal squids.

One of its tentacles was pressed against the side of the tank, revealing large toothy suckers, and a circular dark spot on its trunk looked like an eye but was actually its siphon (its eyes had rotted away). I was in complete awe, even though it wasn’t my first preserved giant squid encounter. That would have been nine years back at the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

However, that specimen, even though of comparable length at the time (it has since shrunk quite more than ten feet, in fact), was in a giant modern hall full of exhibits and masses of visitors. The London creature was a personal encounter. A small group and a large squid.

The reason for the quality of the experience is its preservation tank. The thing is too heavy for the ancient floors of the main museum. In fact, to even make the tank, they had to consult the engineers used by Damien Hirst, the artist who throws entire zebras and cows and sharks into giant tanks of formaldehyde for his art projects. OTIS readers might know Hirst for his diamond-studded skull.

Had I had my way, I would have grabbed a pillow and laid on top of the tank for hours, gazing down through the impossibly clear acrylic until my gazers malfunctioned and I was lost forever in a maze of amazement. However, Archie wasn’t the only mindboggling biological treasure I was there to see. The other, or others, were in a utilitarian glass and metal shelving unit that would have been right at home in an eighth grade biology classroom.

Archie’s tentacles were pointing directly at the shelf, all eight, the way we’d point with five fingers as children so that “three wouldn’t be pointing back at us.” And if anything in that museum should be pointed at by an ocean behemoth, it was these specimens. They were the only things in that room that could dwarf this monster.

On the shelving unit were about two dozen small ocean specimens. Fish and octopus and eels shoved headfirst into tubes or dried out and free of containers. All of them had yellowing parchment labels covered in an old-fashioned spidery scrawl with numbers and scientific names and the word “Beagle.” It wasn’t a label of the contents, but a reference to the HMS Beagle, which took a young natural scientist named Charles Darwin around the world from 1831 to 1836…and changed the world.

The Father of Evolution had bottled these specimens himself.

And these creatures that we were looking at with our own eyeballs and phone lenses were a part of that scientific revolution. Right in front of us.

I’d actually been in this room before. In my mind. When I read China Miéville’s brilliant 2011 novel The Kraken. The story starts and ends in this very room, and the catalyst for the whole book is Archie disappearing into thin air. Also, Clive told us that Tom Cruise filmed a scene from the 2017 movie The Mummy in this room, and you could see Archie’s tank in the background.

It’s one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever been inside. And you don’t have to be Tom Cruise or the ghost of Charles Darwin to enter it. You just need to book a slot for the Spirit Collection tour on the website. It cost 15 pounds, and entry to the museum itself is free.

When we entered back into the museum proper, closing time wasn’t for another hour, so we languidly walked through its dinosaur gallery. But it did nothing for me. My sense of wonder had been exhausted.