"I looked in my turn, and could not restrain a movement of repulsion. Before my eyes was a monster worthy to figure in tetralogical legends. It was a calamary [sic] of colossal dimensions, at least 32 feet long. It was swimming backwards with extreme velocity in the direction of the Nautilus."
So wrote Jules Verne in his best-selling novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, prior to the fearful fight between the submarine's crew and several giant squid.
Since 1869, when the book first appeared, and other such books (80-odd) such as From the Earth to the Moon and Around the World in 80 Days, many of the inventions Verne used as his literary 'props' have come true.
In 1958, the nuclear-powered submarine Nautilus surfaced after 87 hours having crossed 1830 nautical miles beneath the polar ice cap between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
And who over about 60 years of age didn't watch the first astronauts land on the moon? Of course it's now known that giant squid grow even bigger than ''32 ft'' (more than 9 metres).
Fifty-six years ago in the subterranean storage vaults beneath the Wellington Museum, I was shown the Pacific Marine Collection stored in a variety of labelled, liquid-filled phials and jars on interminably long shelves. All, that is, except an over-sized coffin-like container sitting on the floor.
In it was a giant squid, its torso as large as my own and it arms folded back and forth to fit in its box. In recent years adult and juvenile giant squid have been caught alive, and live specimens photographed.
Today, the marine collection of the Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa includes over 150,000 specimens. New Zealanders' knowledge of our marine and fresh-water life is well worth expanding for all sorts of reasons.
The intense competition between vertebrate fish and invertebrate cephalopods (of which the squid is one, others being octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus) have driven each other's evolution. The squid's eye and brain are highly developed.
In New Zealand, the arrival of the Pacific rat or kiore in the early 1300s devastated seabird populations, reduced the fertility of soils and altered the acidity of our streams, for the birds had top-dressed New Zealand well before ex-WWII RNZAF pilots thought to do it.
The cycling of nutrients from the sea to the land was interrupted. Then the squid fishery came along and devastated that population.
As though he knew the future, Jules Verne's last book before the great man died in 1905 was Conquest of the Sea, revolving around the utilisation of the oceans' resources.
That the Te Papa project to describe all our known fish species should mature on the centenary of the passing of Jules Verne was very fitting.
There was the odd fact he didn't get right though.
"Jacques Paganel, during his three days of captivity by the Māoris, had been tattooed - tattooed from feet to shoulders - and he bore on his chest the image of a heraldic kiwi, wings spread, which was biting into his heart."
Jules Verne was a cyclonic, one-man knowledge-wave generator in his lifetime, and I think much could be learnt by today's inquiring minds examining how he went about it.
Incidentally, the Museum of New Zealand's fish collection was started in the year of publication of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1869. It made quite a splash at the time.
*The 'tetralogical legends' Verne refers in the quote at the beginning of this article were plays (three tragedies and a comedy) performed serially on the Athenian stages of ancient Greece.