Let’s See What’s Down There
Travel Stories: In an excerpt from his new book, David Grann takes to New Zealand's high seas on a quest for elusive giant squid
03.24.10 | 10:10 AM ET
As the winds and rains from the cyclone began to descend on New Zealand, the legendary giant squid hunter Steve O’Shea stood beside his boat, which rested on a trailer. The boat was not exactly what I had imagined it to be. It was barely 20 feet long and seven feet wide, with an outboard motor. There was no galley or head, and no place to sleep, except for a forward berth the size of a broom closet. “I suppose you were expecting one of those American yachts, weren’t you?” O’Shea said with a smile
Initially, he had planned to hunt for a giant squid in a chartered vessel with a professional crew and a team of scientists. Squid hunters from Japan, America and Europe crisscrossed the sea in this manner. But such expeditions cost millions of dollars, and O’Shea is an academic who must cobble together funding for his research from private sources. He had already sunk a significant portion of his family’s modest savings into his quest, and as a result he was unable to afford a hearing aid, among other necessities. “If I don’t find a giant squid soon, I’ll be ruined,” he told me.
By December, O’Shea had decided that he would go forward using his own fishing boat, and he whittled down his crew to three people: O’Shea, myself and a graduate student in marine biology named Peter Conway, a gentle 32-year-old vegetarian who rolled his own cigarettes and had never been on such an expedition. “The big swells make me a wee queasy,” he confessed at one point.
O’Shea told me that he was not willing to wait for the cyclone to pass: There was only a short period each year during which adult squid migrated into the region to spawn. And so before sundown in the country’s far north, we took a drive with the trailer, trying to find a safe place to launch the boat. We pulled into an inlet surrounded by volcanic cliffs. “This will have to do,” O’Shea said.
He backed the trailer down the beach, and we put the boat in the water. I climbed on board, and O’Shea and Conway followed. It was cold, but O’Shea was barefoot, and he was wearing only cutoff jeans and a baggy T-shirt. “Righteo, then,” he said, and gunned the engine.
O’Shea had no radar, but he had a navigational system with a small flickering display that signaled the location of the shore and the depth of the sea. It would be our only guide in the darkness.
“It’ll probably be too rough out there for any fishing boats,” O’Shea shouted over the noise of the engine. “But we’re going to need to be careful of container ships. They can come up pretty fast.” It was now twilight, and he squinted at one of the buoys that marked a safe route through the channel.
“What color is that?” he asked me.
“It’s green,” I said. “Can’t you see it?”
“I’m not just deaf,” he said. “I’m color-blind.”
As we left the harbor, it began to rain, and the smooth channel gave way to swells. The boat leaped over the crests, its aluminum hull vibrating.
“A bit rough, ain’t it?” Conway said.
“She’s sturdier than she looks,” O’Shea said of the vessel. He glanced at the forward berth. “Underneath those cushions are the life jackets. You don’t need to wear them, but just so you know where they are.”
The sun disappeared over the horizon, and for a while the sky released a flurry of bright colors, as if it had its own chromatophores. Then it grew dark, and the waves announced themselves not by sight but by sound, as they clapped against the bow. I slipped on my life jacket.
O’Shea said he knew just the spot for hunting, and he stared at the glowing dots on the navigational system. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“There,” he said, pointing into the distance.
I peered over the windshield and saw something shadowy looming over the waves, as if it were the prow of a ship. As we got closer, I realized that it was a large, jagged rock. More rocks became visible, hundreds of them, all jutting skyward. A channel, 40 feet wide, flowed between the rocks, and the water stormed through this opening as if it were racing down a chute. O’Shea sped straight ahead. As we approached the rocks, the boat began to tremble while the swells climbed from ten to seventeen feet; the bow plunged downward, the boat sliding wildly in the water. “Hold on, mate,” O’Shea said. “Here comes a big one.”
The boat soared upward, and I felt momentarily suspended in the air, as if I were a cartoon character who had just stepped off a cliff. Then the boat fell straight down, and another wave crashed into it, sending us hurtling backward. My notebook and pen slid to the deck. The peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches we had packed for supper tumbled out of their containers. “We just need to make sure they don’t take us broadside,” O’Shea said.
The currents were pulling us toward the rocks, and I could hear the massive waves crashing into them. I was holding a flashlight, and I shone it in front of us: There was a 20-foot wall of water. I turned around, and discovered that another enormous wall was pressing down on us from behind.
“You won’t find this in New York, will you, mate?” O’Shea said.
For a moment, I wondered if O’Shea was fully in command of his faculties. But we made it through the gap in the rocks, and he skillfully steered the boat into a protected inlet. It was indeed the perfect spot.
We dropped our anchor. O’Shea grabbed his homemade nets, and placed several glow sticks inside them. “The squid are drawn to the light,” he said. He tied the nets to a lead weight, which he then dropped in the water. We watched the light grow dimmer as the traps sank. “Well, let’s see what’s down there,” O’Shea said.
Excerpted from The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann Copyright (c) 2010 by David Grann. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.