Smithsonian zoologist Clyde Roper is no Captain Ahab. But just how deep will he go to find the last great sea monster?
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
There will be no chasing of sea monsters today.
There will be no high-adventure safaris into the deepest, darkest playgrounds of the world’s most dangerous oceans. There will be no perilous cephalopod-wrestling, no tangles of arms and tentacles, no vicious beak bites that gouge far too close to our man’s manhood. Then again, there will be no more song-and-dance routines performed for the rhythmless money men who finance such adventures. And that’s definitely a bright side, the side that’s always there if you just look hard enough.
The scuba gear will hang unworn on the rack today, and the salty taste of hope will hang right along with it. The deep, deep places, the deepest places on earth—the places where the giants roam—will remain out of reach. The sea monsters will continue to glide along the poorly lit freeways of their underwater worlds unbothered by man—our man. For another day, in the long history of sea-monster days, their secret life will remain just that: secret.
On this chilly October Thursday morning, which begins in a cozy home in Vienna, Va., our man, a Smithsonian Institution zoologist, is about to focus on a far more prosaic challenge: The one against the dizziness, the arterial blockage, the thumping pain that warns that the adventuring—and the whole adventure—might be over. Today is rehab day: Every Tuesday and Thursday will be devoted to pumping iron and running in place, the hopeful beating of monitors and the reassuring beating of hearts. Quadruple-bypass surgery can hinder the forward progress of even the most determined seafarer.
The sooner this former lobster fisherman—with the thick New Hempshuh accent and the lighthouse-captain jawline beard—gets healthier and stronger, the sooner he gets back to the chase. This is what kept him alive: jonesing for just a look—just one look—at that 60-foot lost ark with eight arms, two tentacles, and eyes the size of volleyballs, the largest in the animal kingdom. Our man lives to gaze into those eyes.
Sitting next to him at the kitchen table this morning, munching on gooey coffeecake and beaming a smile that signals a rare kind of love, is his wife. They met when they were both 16. They’ve been married for 42 years. They have two grown, successful sons. No matter what frustrations arise from his epic—but thus far empty—quest, his wife always brings him back to what matters most: He almost died…but he didn’t. He almost caught a kraken…but he didn’t. He almost missed a chance at meeting his wife…but he didn’t. He didn’t.
Workout time nears, so he changes into gym shorts and a tank top, the long, brutal scars from the life-or-death surgery still visible, still healing, still blood-red. He’s lost almost 25 pounds since the operation, but for a 62-year-old man who was near death mere months ago, he looks pretty damn good.
He ties up his tattered running shoes. He reaches for his water bottle (which he will nevertheless leave behind). And he kisses his wife goodbye.
He steps outside and sucks in a cool burst of autumn air. Kids have smashed his mailbox three times recently—not a vendetta, just punk stuff—but the mailbox has somehow survived the night. “I’m gonna sit out there with a shotgun,” he’s been known to grumble.
Today is just rehab: running, lifting, breathing. But today is really for tomorrow, when, he hopes, he will have another chance to find Architeuthis dux—the giant squid—an animal that has never been seen alive in its natural habitat. Sure, they’ve found a few dead ones moldering on the beach, but never a live one. Never. Not once. The Loch Ness Monster has probably been spotted more often than a live giant squid, the largest invertebrate of all time.
The job of turning “never” into “once”—just once—belongs to marine biologist Clyde Roper. Give him the chance to snuggle up to a live giant squid, and then his life will really get interesting.
In a 1998 National Geographic Society documentary, filmed partly on location in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, a then-58-year-old Roper engaged in some hand-to-arms, life-or-death combat with a big-ass squid.
The main purpose of the film (and a 1996-97 expedition, which also ventured to the Azores Islands and New Zealand) was to capture Roper as he captured the first look at a live giant squid. Roper’s quest had lasted more than 30 years—more than 30 years of lab work, book work, brain work—but finally—out in the field—his best shot at zoological immortality had arrived. A colleague of Roper’s had just developed the Crittercam, a high-sensitivity video camera to be mounted onto the broad back of a sperm whale—a species that happens to feed on giant squids. It was a perfectly logical plan: Follow the sperm whales, and the sperm whales will lead you to Architeuthis. Roper was on the brink of finding his many-tentacled grail.
Along with select members of his “Squid Squad”—the hundreds of scientists, students, and volunteers who have helped our man compile data for his quest—Roper spent most of his expedition time in the Azores, where numerous dead giant squids had been spotted. But on a side trip to help filmmakers obtain additional footage, he also traveled to the Sea of Cortez, where abnormally large and aggressive Humboldt squids had been spotted. A marine biologist first and foremost, he just couldn’t say no.
And just like that, the all-too-willing zoologist had to go and get trapped in a flimsy cage with a hulking pissed-off Humboldt squid in the dead of night. Sure, the 5-foot Humboldt is no 60-foot behemoth, but then again, it’s no pushover, either.
“Some might consider this an experience to be avoided,” film narrator Stacy Keach monotones as Roper plunges into the blackened sea and climbs into a shelter that looks about as protective as a wet cardboard box. Cue squid. Cue a curious zoologist reaching out for an innocent touch. Cut to man and beast trapped in the same closet-sized space, obviously not big enough for the both of them. A bizarre undersea tango begins. Things move quickly, even in the slow-motion world of warm saltwater.
When eight arms—and a thick cloud of ink—aren’t enough to finish the job, the 5-foot predator, flashing strobelike bursts of color, gets really nasty. All squids have beaks for jaws—imagine a parrot’s beak but much bigger, much stronger, much sharper. The Humboldt, a known cannibal and people-killer, decides to use his beak to render Clyde into Clydette. The squid spreads his arms and tentacles and goes right for the balls. Reacting with a jolt of instinct, Roper manages a nifty juke ‘n’ shove maneuver, and the Humboldt, suddenly bored by the battle, darts away and seeks action elsewhere.
Thoroughly jazzed by the encounter, Roper doesn’t even notice the gash in his thigh until after he climbs back into the film crew’s boat, removes his wet suit, and sees pink water running down his leg. Very close, a matter of inches actually, but he—and his little mate down below—will survive.
The passage of time has softened his brush with the Humboldt to a mere war story, an encounter that makes him grin as he recalls it. “What a thrill! [Humboldt beaks] can really take a plug out,” he says, laughing. “The cameraman was no help. He would have let me get eaten!”
The National Geographic special, titled Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid, is loaded with wild footage (you ain’t seen nothing ’til you’ve seen the world’s largest shark lollygagging on the ocean floor) and boasts a natural ham in Roper, who continues on despite the beak bite. But the film—despite the presence of the cool Crittercam—is ultimately short on just one thing: the real star. The beast.
Born in Ipswich, Mass., but raised by the waves of Rye, N.H., Roper is enjoying his 33rd year in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. His specialty is researching the lives of cephalopods—squids, octopuses, nautiluses, and cuttlefish. A far cry from the stereotypical nerdy scientist working the ‘scopes with a furrowed brow, Roper is a refreshingly funny man, a master calamari chef, and an enthusiastic teacher who would much rather thrill gaggles of wide-eyed school kids with tales of the giant squid than get no-smile serious with a lab-coated flock of serious scientists.
“In this technology-laden world, Clyde is really a throwback to the Jules Verne type of guy, and that really appeals to me,” says Jeannine Washington, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who worked with Roper as a Smithsonian volunteer from 1996 to 1998. “He’s willing to be a mentor to other scientists…but he’s not bookish. He’s also the hardest-working man I know. He’s constantly working.”
Roper’s the type of guy who will never officially retire; his must-know-now brain just doesn’t work that way. But Roper, who earned both his master’s degree (1962) and his doctorate (1966) from the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of Miami, is now a sexagenarian whose decadeslong quest might end without a 60-foot grand finale. As far as his Indiana Jonesing days are concerned—frolicking with both big and bigger squids—well, the Humboldt battle might be the last clip in that high-drama highlight reel. Considering his endless love affair with the giant squid, it’s a brutal irony that his heart may ultimately prevent him from consummating that particular relationship.
During the filming of Sea Monsters, Roper was already planning an even greater adventure: the most expensive, most extensive giant squid search in history. It would go down three years later, in the spring of 1999. Sensing the massive scope of the project, the press, from the Washington Post to USA Today, swarmed over the monster hunt from the start. The location was the undersea Kaikoura Canyon, off the coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The research vessel Kaharoa was loaded with millions of dollars of high-tech oceanographic gizmos, including the expedition’s crown jewel, the Deep Rover submersible, a minisub that would take Roper—now knighted with the heady title of “chief scientist”—down to the very depths where Architeuthis roams.
It takes tall money to go deep. You can’t just stop by Hertz and fork over the green for a one-man minisub able to drop to record-setting depths. You can’t coordinate scientists (and data and equipment and supplies) from four different nations with the lint-covered spare change in a zoologist’s pocket. So Roper had decided that, this time around, he was either going to go big or stay home. And go big he did. Although the Discovery Channel agreed to be a co-sponsor, Roper, whose expeditions are not greatly funded by his Smithsonian bosses, was forced to hustle numerous outside money sources, including the BBC and unnamed private donors.
With an abundance of luggage, Clyde and his wife, Ingrid Roper, arrived at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIAWA) in Wellington, New Zealand, on Feb. 1, 1999. Right off the plane, they were greeted with amazing news: A commercial fishing boat trawling off the east coast of South Island had, within the month, caught two dead giant squids in its nets. Architeuthis was out there; Roper had known it all along.
But before he could start combing the high seas, there was almost a month of preliminary work to accomplish at NIAWA: endless meetings, instructions, and practice procedures with his support team of scientists, conservationists, bioacoustic engineers, logistics coordinators, electronics specialists, videographers, photographers, journalists—and, of course, his wife. Surely, the endless hours of probing, waiting, and watching would be worth it.
Finally, at dawn on March 7, the Kaharoa set off for South Island. But almost as soon as the Squid Squad took its position, unseasonable weather arrived: storms, high seas, deep swells. The technical problems started early and never seemed to stop. The whitecap conditions made it all but impossible for the Deep Rover to safely operate in the underwater Kaikoura Canyon. Our man was frustrated: Years of choreographing the greatest giant squid hunt in history—years of life, sweat, and worry—and now this: more life, sweat, and worry.
But Roper refused to let glitches get in the way of his golden opportunity. He had planned for 30 days of diving but was only able to manage eight actual dives. On March 26, the very last day of expedition, the Deep Rover, finally operating problem-free, descended into New Zealand waters to a depth of 2,200 feet, breaking the previous record for manned diving by more than 1,000 feet. Man had never gone so deep so fast—and had never spent so much time (for the first time) in the giant squid’s neighborhood.
Although Roper considers the Kaikoura expedition a huge success in terms of finding out information concerning New Zealand’s deep-ocean fauna, ecosystems, and geological formations, we now know what he didn’t find: Not a giant arm. Not a giant tentacle. Not even a giant snapping beak. Giant squid tally: zilch.
But that wasn’t even close to being the lousiest part of Roper’s year.
Several weeks after the Kaikoura expedition, while he and his wife were staying at a friend’s New Zealand cottage, Roper started suffering from severe dizziness and disorientation. His health was failing him. It became obvious: Kaikoura had been too much to handle, too late in life. Back in the States, doctors gave him one option: Quadruple-bypass surgery with a new lifestyle.
In essence: Hold the calamari, living or fried.
Sometimes a lifelong quest doesn’t end with hugs, sunsets, and rolling credits. Sometimes a lifelong quest remains just that. For now, unless a big donor, corporate or individual, comes along with the necessary cash for high-tech deep-sea equipment and a proper team of talented scientists to assist him, Roper will never have another chance to chase the giant squid.
Roper’s office sits cramped and cluttered in the east wing of Natural History. Books and papers, and maps and models, and presents and pictures from young squid-lovers around the world consume every last inch of space. A dusty package of Willy Wonka’s Super Chew Candy Squid hangs on one wall. The highlight of his quarters is an office-wide window overlooking one of the most beautiful vistas in Washington, D.C.: the Smithsonian Castle, the Mall lawn, the vibrant yellow-orange autumn foliage, and the hundreds of buzzing schoolchildren from the ‘burbs decamping from bright yellow buses.
A few paces from Roper’s office, across the hall and through ominous double doors, is the “alcoholic room, which is not to say a collection of alcoholics” (a Roper oldie-but-goodie). On hundreds of shelves, in hundreds of bottles, are tens of thousands of specimens: squids and octopuses and whatever else he and his colleagues have brought back from their exotic adventures. It’s like the cantina scene in Star Wars: There’s too much to look at, too much to see.
At the end of one row of shelves, on the floor, is a hamper-sized metal container. Ask what’s in there, and Roper snaps open the latches, dips his hands into the pool of isopropyl, and—while your eyes are trying to peer through the thick, nauseating stench that has engulfed the room—pulls out a dead, dripping giant octopus. Roper cradles the wet, slimy tangle in his arms as he would a puppy. And, sure, he’ll even let you pet the puppy. The alcoholic room is beyond spectacular.
And it is here, amid the wonder of it all, that Roper, surrounded by his extended family, sheds a layer of his thick New England coat and abandons pretense. This is where he finally lets go.
On the possibility that someone else might find a live giant squid before he does: “Obviously, it would be a combination of emotions,” he says after a pause and a diplomatic shuffling of words. He laughs and adds sarcastically: “I would hope they’d let me know. I hope they’d let me see the pictures or hear the story. But really, I would feel fine, because it would mean just a tremendous advance in our knowledge. I’d love to be with them. You know, it’s not my squid. I think I could feel some validation…and feel pretty doggone good about it, too. People now know about the giant squid. You couldn’t say that 10 years ago.”
But if the fates intervene, and it is indeed Roper who catches the inaugural glimpse of the giant squid, there’s no one else alive who could solve the puzzle faster and fill in glistening answers to dusty questions that have awaited observational data.
“Show me 15 seconds of an Architeuthis in its natural habitat, and I will answer a whole bunch of questions about the animal,” he says, standing among his many creatures like an aquatic Snow White. “You will know its orientation. Does it lie horizontally? Does it lie head down? Does it lie head up? Does it live in a solitary manner? Does it live with one or two or three or four others? Smaller schools? Family groups? You’d see reproductive behavior. Mating! How about that? Mating giant squid! Doesn’t get much better than that!”
He puts himself in the deepest oceans, the deepest seas. He’s been there before, in daydreams only, but daydreams so real, so complete—taste, touch, sight, smell, sound—that they’ve near-morphed into authentic memories. It’s easy to go there with him.
“Think of the phenomenal footage! Inside the sub, one of the submersibles with the acrylic dome so you can see and hear everything: Think of the animal coming up, grabbing the sub—it’s not going to penetrate the hull; it’s not going to do any damage—seeing the suckers work, seeing the beak, seeing the mouth work, sort of grinding away there. Keep the video rolling! How great would it be to break the surface when the sub comes up, break the surface and have the Architeuthis all wrapped around? Even if the squid’s arms and tentacles got tangled in the thrusters and all your propellers were stopped, you could still blow ballast and get to the surface. I don’t think the squid would be powerful enough to grab the submersible and swim away with it….Imagine saying, ‘Uh, yeah, we’re coming up, and we’re bringing a squid with us!’”
You want him to get that chance. Only him. Screw the other scientists: The squid belongs to Roper, the one who’s earned it, the guy who almost—almost—gave up his right nut just to be the first. But what if Roper’s greatest chance to see the squid—the multi-million-dollar expedition to New Zealand—was his last? Roper was the director of a mission plagued by technical difficulties, a mission consumed by snowballing frustrations. And a mission noted for its absence of a giant squid.
While Roper is extraordinary in many ways, he is a toweringly normal man in terms of lifestyle: too much work, not enough sleep, too many pounds, not enough exercise. One of us, so to speak. He neglected the mundane details of looking after himself while he was busy looking for you-know-who. On the trail of the hunted, he forgot about the hunter. And, before he could realize what was happening, that cartoon frying pan swung from the heavens. His wife had warned him numerous times that he’d better be careful—but who has time for careful when you’re hunting the last great sea monster?
Under the watchful gaze of deadly poisonous blue-ringed octopuses waiting patiently on an alcoholic-room shelf, Roper, slowly and initially reluctant to go into much detail, unveils the particulars of the day he almost died.
“I felt great,” he says, bewilderment still very much a part of the tale. “I felt great, right until I went into the hospital. It was a close call. Five blockages in the four major coronary arteries. Who knows? Could have been a month, or could have been a year, or could have been 10 years. Sooner or later, something major was going to happen.”
He never saw it coming: Arteries. Blockages. The closest of close calls. Hell, even closer than the Humboldt. Even as he describes walking the tightrope above the great beyond, he makes it sound like one more expedition, full of gear, adventure, and wonder. The man lives life to the fullest, even when he’s talking about almost dying. As he spills out the how-to steps of the operation, a pre-op picture of Roper on his dangling ID badge—grinning, unknowing, 22 pounds heavier—looks on:
“They hold your chest open, pull your heart out, lay it on your chest, pack your chest cavity with ice, depress the temperature to about 80 degrees, stop your heart, and put you on a machine. Then sit there and snip and sew. It’s a phenomenal procedure. Unbelievable.”
The fact that this close-to-home expedition achieved its objectives—he’s still here, isn’t he?—hasn’t dimmed its ultimate lesson: If there is another giant squid expedition, Roper will not be gathering, training, and leading the troops alone.
“I’m not going to do that again. I’m 62 years old. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I would desperately, desperately, desperately love to see a living Architeuthis, but not so much that I’m going to jeopardize my health anymore. If someone comes to me with the funding, or if there’s someone who wants to invest in a research project, then of course, of course—I would be stupid not to pursue that. But there would be an understanding that, fine, I’ll be the chief scientist, but the funding has to bring with it sufficient funds to hire a project manager and an administrative assistant and stuff like that.”
To show he’s serious, Roper rolls up a shirt sleeve. Pulls up a pant leg. Unbuttons his shirt. His left leg, his left arm, and his chest are roped with angry scars. These are his reminders of an encounter much scarier than the one with the gonad-seeking Humboldt squid. These are the reminders that squid-hunting and work-obsessing and expedition-leading are maybe not what it’s ultimately all about.
“That’s a wake-up call…a second chance,” he says, looking down at his body. “Every day now, every single day, is beautiful.”
It was not asleep, for it did not know sleep, sleep was not among its natural rhythms. It rested, nourishing itself with oxygen absorbed from the water it pumped through the caverns of its bullet-shaped body.#
Its eight sinuous arms floated on the current; its two long tentacles were coiled tightly against its body. When it was threatened or in the frenzy of a kill, the tentacles would spring forward, like tooth-studded whips.#
It had but one enemy: All the other creatures in its world were prey…#
It existed to survive. And to kill.#
For, peculiarly—if not uniquely—in the world of living things, it often killed without need, as if Nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end.
—Peter Benchley, Beast (1991)
“One of the things that really got me started was the fact that there were so many mistruths spoken about the giant squid,” Roper says while standing in front of the District’s own Architeuthis—Greek for “ruling squid”—in the west wing of Natural History. “I felt a bit incensed that people would talk about these beautiful animals and tell such lies about them. But the reason they did that is because no one really knew anything about them. I was even offended by the fact that it was called a monster.”
Washington’s showcase squid, found dead on the beaches of Plum Island, Mass., in 1980, is looking less than ferocious today: Her mantle, similar in appearance to a soiled pillow left in the attic, is pale and flaking; her normal hue of shocking purple-maroon was lost long before she tumbled lifeless from the surf. Her tentacles and eyes are missing; her arms are shriveled.
Her route to this showcase fires the imagination. There she is, doing what giant squids do—whatever giant squids do—in that deep place where no one ever goes, and then something—you fill in blank—ends her aquatic frolic. She dies. And slowly, oh-so-slowly, she begins to rise from that place we’ve never been, moving upward, until she breaks the surface, her powerless tentacles animated by waves that carry her to the Massachusetts beach, that carry her to Roper, that carry her, finally, to us. As Roper talks about her—”She was an early teenager,” he says—she becomes both beautiful and frightening at once. Even in this giant squid’s current condition, you still wouldn’t want to bump into her while body-surfing in Ocean City.
(In 1974, in Newfoundland, while slightly besotted on a locally brewed rum called Screech, Roper was one of a few colleagues who had the balls to chomp on some bitter bites of a carrion Architeuthis. Before that odd dessert, he had gleefully stomached a meal consisting of calamari cooked 12 different ways. Didn’t he get sick of all that seafood? “You don’t get tired of reading Playboy, do you?” Roper snaps.)
In part, the best defense for his favorite leviathan is a good offense: “But now, the more you think about it, it is, it is monstrous. It’s monstrous in proportions, and when you think about the weapons it has, those 30- to 40-foot-long tentacles with huge suction cups, eight arms that have huge suction cups with teeth on them, and, of course, the beaks, those huge beaks….Those are all weapons that can make it a fearsome animal. So I now accept the fact that it can be called a legitimate sea monster. But it’s not vindictive; it’s not vicious; it’s not going to hurt anybody. I’ve always, always believed, and always will, the truth about animals is far more interesting than the mysteries that people make up about them.”
Guys like Roper will tell you that there are actually more hard data available about long-dead dinosaurs than about giant squids, which experts believe currently reside in all the oceans of the world. Basically, this is how much Roper & Co. know about Architeuthis: The largest giant squid ever found was measured at 60 feet long, although, from top to tentacles, most dead specimens have been between 35 and 45 feet. Ask Roper what giant squids eat, and he’ll fire off yet another oldie-but-goodie: “Anything they want.” Recent studies have shown a steady diet of orange roughy, hoki, and other squids—but not other giant squids.
The grandest squid of all has eyes the size of a human head and probably lives only 3 or 4 years. It captures prey by using two long feeding tentacles, which have suckers on their clublike tips. The tentacles shoot out to capture prey, then contract to bring dinner toward the beak, which is encased in a muscular ball that helps it chomp any old thing to bits. The only known predator of the giant squid is the sperm whale, which may be only 40 to 50 feet in length, but weighs 30 to 40 tons. Until now, it’s been the only reason the giant squid has had to look over its shoulder.
In just a few days, the giant squid exhibit here at the museum—eerily lit, spooky as hell, and a must-see in D.C.—will be shuttered for an indeterminate time. The Smithsonian is dismantling Natural History’s Life in the Sea hall in the name of more room for mammals, and our Architeuthis and her accompanying display (a video, an interactive gizmo, a time line) will be relocated sometime soon to the second floor. This piece of information is one of the first things Roper was told after he returned back to work from his July 9 bypass surgery.
So the squid hunter is understandably pissed-off—all the while apologizing for his display of emotion—but before he can really rip into the proverbial powers that be, a preschool boy wanders into the domain of the giant squid, cautiously eyes the long-dead beast slowly rotting in her alcohol chamber, and stutter-steps his way closer. Roper lights up: He gets taller, he smiles, and he whispers excitedly, “Look at his face! Look at his eyes! Every time I come down here, I have this wonderful validation. Look at that: He’s enthralled. He’s entranced by it. And that’s what it’s all about….I call giant squids the new dinosaurs. Kids and squids are naturals for each other.”
With so many people so suddenly excited by Clyde and the Sea Monster—whether they like it or not, Roper and Architeuthis are officially a couple—the marine biologist is also quick to point out that the growing Squidmania, in his eyes at least, is really about a much bigger picture. If sperm whales can lead Roper to giant squids, and giant squids can lead Roper to the deep sea, then the deep sea can lead Roper to known and unknown resources that will help keep the planet thriving well into the 22nd century. This is Roper’s mission statement, and he won’t let anyone miss it:
“I don’t want you or anyone else to think that the giant squid is the only marine animal in my life….The giant squid is a great representative, and I use that as an icon to lead us into the deep sea…and what it means to us as humans, and what it means to our survival. We’d better start learning more and more and more about the deep sea, because that has direct application to the health of the Earth.”
The home of Ingrid and Clyde Roper—a Cape Cod, of course—is besquidded with numerous eight-armed tchotchkes: squid sketches, squid kites, squid windsocks, squid coasters, even a squid-shaped spoon holder on the stove.
It’s not as cool as the alcoholic room, but you can tell that Clyde Roper is plenty comfortable, even away from his bottled pals. You see, his other great love is here.
Ingrid has worked as a volunteer at Natural History’s Department of Invertebrate Zoology for 33 years. In fact, during the Kaikoura expedition, she posted daily dispatches on the goings-on for the Search for Giant Squid Web site. As a sign of solidarity, she is wearing a gold octopus necklace around her neck. “I’ve been with Clyde long before squids,” she says, smiling.
Clyde: “She always threatened me with, ‘You’re gonna have a heart attack.’ Well, I fooled her. I still haven’t had a heart attack. I probably would have had one and only one—and that would have been a clunker….I just needed a Roto-Rooter to clean out all those pipes.”
Ingrid: “We feel blessed. He’s going to be around for another 30 years.”
Clyde: “Yes, a new lease on life.”
Clyde, whose father was a machinist and whose mother was a teacher, earned his teenage keep as a lobster fisherman in Rye in the mid-’50s. He would start the annual crustacean harvesting in the spring and quit in the fall. Before he could afford either an outboard or an inboard motor, “I would row standing up and haul 75 traps by hand,” he says.
Ingrid was born and raised in Mountain Lakes, N.J., and would vacation with her family in Eliot, Maine—just a few miles from Rye. She landed a summer job at the Drake House, where Clyde’s brother, Lee, was a bellhop. “In the course of the time there, Clyde would come to deliver lobsters in his stinky truck [a ’37 Chevy],” Ingrid laughs. “Every Friday night at Drake House was lobster night. So he would come every Friday night, and he’d kind of hang around and flirt with the waitresses and claim that he was visiting his brother.”
Clyde: “The ratio was so out-of-whack. Lee was the only male, and there were all these waitresses, six or seven of them. You know, I love my brother, but I just thought that ratio was just too much for one guy.”
Ingrid: “That was a summer romance that stuck.”
They’ve been together ever since.
Clyde admits that, as a young man providing lobsters for summer renters, he had no idea that marine biology would one day rule his life. In fact, during his first two years of college at Transylvania University, he was a philosophy major. “I was not smart enough to know all those years when I was fishing—I loved boats and I loved the ocean and I loved animals—that you could study those things,” he says.
“Nothing like that was ever, ever discussed in high school. It was not something I had even thought of pursuing until my brother started fishing with me—sophomore year [of college] going into junior—and he said, ‘You really like this stuff. You should go into marine biology.’…You know how they say, light dawns late in some countries?” He gives his melon a good rap. “Well, light dawned late in this one.”
He polishes off the coffeecake in the kitchen, and the conversation moves into the Ropers’ wood-paneled living room, complete with whale paintings and a deer head. (Clyde is also a woodland hunter—”helps him meditate,” Ingrid says—although he hasn’t shouldered a shotgun in some time.) The centerpiece of the room is a large cooking fireplace, a brick-laid hearth so spacious that it would pass for an English basement in Dupont Circle. There’s a fire currently crackling, and the effect is utterly somnambulant. Eyelids droop; smiles arrive of their own accord; butts slide deeper into couches.
Clyde, however, is still punched in. With Ingrid close beside him, Clyde hits all of his marks. He’s finishing strong:
“The [Natural History giant squid] exhibit opened in May of ’94, and all the expeditions have happened since then. We’ve been to the Azores…we’ve been to New Zealand…and we’ve been back to New Zealand. I need to try and find some money to upgrade it and reflect where we are now at the end of the 20th century. Ten thousand dollars would upgrade that exhibit. For moving, re-establishing, and upgrading the giant squid exhibit, $10,000 would do it. It’s nothing. Well, when I say it’s nothing, I don’t mean the museum should kick that in. It would be nice, it’d be wonderful…but, you know, I fought that battle. I’ve gotten to the point, after 33 years, I am not going to fight anymore. I’m not going to put my energies into things that are unproductive. I just can’t fight anymore.”
“Without donations, without philanthropy that’s corporate and individual….We need that in order to maintain ourselves as we should be maintained. We need help….What I need is a ship and a submersible. I need the means to get into the deep sea. Sure, space exploration is OK. Oh yeah, you want to spend gazillions? Here’s your check! There’s your check for exploration in outer space. But exploration in deep sea? The checkbook goes away.”
And then Roper gets up. He checks his watch. Today’s rehab assignment nears. In a few moments, he’ll throw on the tank top, hike up the gym shorts, tie up the shoes, and forget the water bottle.
But before he goes, he must spew the mission statement one more time. His crush on Architeuthis has greater implications. Let’s face it: A man who chases sea monsters for his own purposes—to achieve glory, to achieve personal gain—is really just a Captain Ahab. And Dr. Clyde Roper is no Captain Ahab.
“The giant squid is an icon that catches people’s attention so that I can take them into…the deep sea. The giant squid is a fabulous, fascinating, intriguing, wonderful animal, but that’s not all there is. It’s the means—it catches people’s attention. We got your attention, didn’t we? What got your attention? Not Clyde Roper. Giant squid, that’s what got your attention. That’s what I’m doing. The giant squid, folks, is where it’s at, because that gives us the opportunity to educate people about the deep sea.”
Ingrid Roper beams a big, beautiful grin across the room and re-settles into the sofa with silent glee. She’s thrilled, of course. She’s heard the “squid as icon” spiel before—thousands of times before, actually—but it’s taken on new meaning in the last few months. Every day is beautiful, right?
“He’s childlike in his enthusiasm,” she says as her husband walks off, “and I think that’s a compliment. He’s enthusiastic about everything, and he is extremely observant.”
So, on this chilly October morning, the chasing of sea monsters has been replaced by walking, running, lifting…breathing. Sure, it’s not hauling lobster traps by hand. And it sure as hell isn’t playing duck-and-cover with a goddamn Humboldt squid. But you gotta be prepared all the same.
After all, tomorrow could be the day. You just never know. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.