A hirstian encounter

March 17, 2006

Natural History Museum, London. Booking on hourly tours essential.

The first thing that strikes you is its sheer size. The cloudy tank, the colour of water-worn glass, stretches nearly the length of the room, the creature within unfurling delicately towards the far gunmetal-grey wall. The animal is 8.6m long, a figure easy to bandy about, but hard to grasp until you see it stretched in front of you. The Natural History Museum has unveiled the second largest living invertebrate, a giant squid, Architeuthis dux , caught alive in 2004 off the Falkland Islands. It is the most perfectly preserved specimen on the planet, though there is only one other in existence.

The squid is a teenage female. It is thought that they reach their adult size of 500kg and 18m within three years. Almost nothing is known about this creature, which inspired the kraken legend; sailors reported ocean-going monsters grappling with ships and wrestling with whales. Although these stories have existed since 1555, the giant squid was formally described only in 1802 and a live one was not captured until 1861.

Certainly whales have been found with the imprints of suckers seared into their skin. But it is unlikely that squid would have tried to capsize an ocean-going vessel, being more interested in their prey - smaller squid, crabs and fish, which they catch with two long tentacles equipped with teeth-filled suckers.

It is difficult to imagine the creature spread out in the tank before me as a swift predator hauled from ocean depths (the only live footage of one was filmed a kilometre below the surface). It is pale pink and nude-looking as if its skin had been sloughed off to reveal the gummy tissue beneath. The eight arms it used to propel itself through the sea are a twisted intestinal mass, faintly obscene; they remind me of the fat pink limbs of badly sewn cloth dolls leaking stuffing. The tank was designed by the company that made those for Damien Hirst's cow and shark, though the squid is more Hirstian than anything the artist has created.

The room in the Darwin Centre where it is housed is a perfect combination of high and low tech. It is a windowless subterranean lab full of low stainless-steel tanks in which lie huge pickled animals - a dolphin, a crocodile. Round the sides are large jars of orange formalin and the remains of preserved creatures, many faded to corpse-white. There are 450,000 lives suspended in embalming fluid. Among them are specimens Charles Darwin brought back from his voyage on HMS Beagle , the labels written in elegant coffee-coloured copperplate. There is a jar packed with three cross-legged monkeys, like sad, thin Buddhas. In one labelled "Pickling Onions, Warrented Pure" is some sort of tiny rodent, hidden by the Victorian label. In another is the preserved skeleton of a small shark, fins and tail carefully attached, the cartilage a delicate blue and new-leaf green.

It is a magical experience, beautiful and shocking, scientific and artistic. The squid, its dinnerplate eyes sunken into its sockets, lies serene and alien in the midst of all, reminding us how little we know about our oceans.

Sanjida O'Connell is author of Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World , Virgin Books, £8.99.

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