"I looked in my turn, and could not repress a gesture of disgust. Before my eyes was a horrible monster, worthy to figure in the legends of the marvelous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous, staring green eye." -- Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Verne based his fictional account on stories he had heard of giant squid attacking ships. And while these were likely not true, as the creature dwells at least 500 or 600 feet down, there is some truth to the description. Eight yards is a reasonable length, at least for a juvenile; dead specimens have been measured at 60 feet in length. That "enormous, staring green eye" happens to be the largest eye ever known in the history of the planet -- about the size of a human head.
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The giant squid, or architeuthis dux, if one wants to be scientific about it, is the largest invertebrate ever, and yet little is known about it, as no live giant squid has ever been captured or seen in its natural habitat. The only specimens have been found dead -- in fishing nets, washed up on shore, or in the stomachs of sperm whales, thought to be the massive cephalopod's only predator.
But despite the lack of scientific data regarding the gargantuan calamari, the South Florida Science Museum features it as a main attraction in its "Monsters of the Deep" exhibit, which opens Saturday. The exhibition features a sculpture of a 32-foot giant squid squaring off against a 26-foot sperm whale; double the size of each of these creatures and you get something a little more like the full-grown versions.
"Monsters of the Deep"
South Florida Science Museum, 4801 N. Dreher Trl., West Palm Beach
Opens Saturday, December 22 and closes May 5. The museum is open Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $6 or $4 for children ages 3-17. Children younger than age 3 and museum members are free. Call 561-832-1988.
Several other displays accompany the sculpture. The shark diorama includes full-scale models of a great white, a hammerhead, a manta ray, a mako, and several prehistoric sharks and rays, including the jaws of megalodon, a shark so huge that the jaws measure about five feet high. The other diorama in the exhibition includes a group of undersea dinosaurs, with a 20-foot mosasaur skeleton as well as a 16-foot model of the Mesozoic predator. A 40-foot coral reef terrace displays a setting from the Cretaceous Period of 65 million years ago. Creatures such as the ten-foot nothosaurus and the five-foot aquatic scorpion are found here. Kids activities include the Discovery Center, which features a bone yard, a small cave, various skeletons, and informative stations and brain teasers.
Finally, a live tank includes some of the world's deadliest fish, sharks, and the only chambered nautilus in captivity in South Florida. All of these impressive displays of enormous size and nasty, pointy teeth serve as a reminder that, without the large brains and opposable thumbs, we'd be the ones going extinct.