First published 1997, updated in 1998, 2003, and 2004.
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep,
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
Above his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green,
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by men and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
The Kraken — Albert, Lord Tennyson
The Giant Squid
The next time you sink your teeth into some calimari think of this: The giant squid has been measured to a length of 60 feet, and weighs in the neighborhood of between 1 and 2 tons. It has eight arms, each lined with two rows of suckers. The giant squid also has the largest eyes of any known creature, over a foot in diameter.
If the giant squid is like its smaller cousins, it is a predator. To make the giant squid an ideal predator, its suckers are ringed with a hard, jagged edge, resembling teeth, in order to better enable the squid to hold onto its prey. Additionally, two longer tentacles are also used to help move the prey to the large, sharp parrot-like beak.
Needless to say, you will not sink your teeth into this creature without a fight.
The Stuff of Legends
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 eyes.
So says the Naturalist, in the Jules Vern classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 18. Though this book is a work of fiction, the squid encounter that Vern wrote about was based on fact, or at least a story that Vern heard about at the time. The story states that a French naval ship was attacked by a giant squid in 18611.
Since earliest times, there have been legends of sea serpents and large, many-armed creatures attacking boats. One of the fiercest creatures was the legendary beast known as the Kraken, discussed in Part 1 of Tale of Two Monsters.
Now, modern belief is that the kraken was a giant squid, and that the size of the creature has grown through numerous re-tellings of ancient stories; from creatures of 50 feet to creatures the size of islands.
A Norwegian Bishop, one Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, wrote in his journals about the kraken and mentions the size of the creature as being one and one-half miles long 3! More recently, another eyewitness account of the size of the giant squid is given by an A.G. Starkey, who was stationed on a British trawler in World War. Starkey tells of being on deck in the evening when he notices a light in the water next to the boat. As he tells it, “As I gazed, fascinated, a circle of green light glowed in my area of illumination. This green unwinking orb I suddenly realized was an eye. The surface of the water undulated with some strange disturbance. Gradually I realized that I was gazing at almost point-black range at a huge squid.”
According to the Starkey account, he walked along the boat, measuring the giant quid and realized that it was as long as the boat he was on. It is at this point that accounts may differ. According to a Discovery Channel special on the Giant Squid (telecast July 31, at 8:00 pm in a show titled “X Creatures”), the boat Starkey was on measured 60 feet. According to the account given in the Museum of Unnatural Mystery4, where I pulled the quote, the boat measured 175 feet!
Eyewitness accounts of the size of the giant squid are matched by tales of squid behavior, specifically stories of squids attacking ships.
As said earlier, Jules Verne based his squid fight in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on an eyewitness account of a giant squid attacking a French naval ship1. Another account of a giant squid attacking a ship is given in the logs of the Brunswick, a Norwegian Trawler. In the logs an account is given of a giant squid attacking this large ship three different times, before the squid finally slid into the ship’s propellers and was killed.
A third account tells of nuclear submarine losing the use of its sonar equipment on the ship’s maiden voyage. When the submarine returned to port, the Navy found that the covering on the Sonar had been torn lose and that hooks remained in the material, hooks from a giant squid.
Other accounts tell of giant squid grabbing men from the waters as ships were sank in World War I and II, and also of giant squid attacking small fishing boats. Two South African lighthouse workers reported in 1966 about seeing a giant squid wrapped around a baby whale, in a ferocious fight, with the baby whale surfacing and being pulled back under before it finally stopped rising to the surface4
So, are there giant squid lurking off our coasts that reach a size of 150 feet and that pull folks off boats? Well, behind every tale, there is a seed of truth, and now its time to take a look at what we do know about the giant squid.
What We Think We Know
Amid rumor and scant eyewitness accounts, we have little knowledge of the giant squid and its behavior. Giant squid have washed up on shore sporadically so we have had a chance to examine dead specimens. We also know that the giant squid forms part of the diet for toothed whales such as the sperm whale. Outside of that, though, we have little knowledge of these of the largest known invertebrate. We have never successfully viewed the giant squid in its natural environment, and we have never had a chance to examine a living specimen. But what we do know makes this an incredibly interesting creature.
First of all, when discussing giant squid, most folks are discussing the squid known as Architeuthis Dux. There are other large species of squid, some of which have been seen in the wild. For instance, the Navy provides an audio account of an encounter between a robotic research submersible and a variety of squid known as Moroteuthis. In the account, the squid was six feet in length5. Compared to its larger cousin, though, Moroteuthis is pretty small: Architeuthis Dux, or the Giant Squid by its popular name, has been measured at close to 60 feet in length.
The first recorded physical record of the giant squid was made by a Reverend Moses Harvey in Newfoundland, based on a dead giant squid that had been caught by local fishermen. Dead giant squid had been washed up on shore before, but this was the first time a person had taken samples of the squid, and made scientific observations of the creature — due to the foresight demonstrated by Rev. Harvey as he sent the creature to Yale University for study6.
Since that time, more creatures have been washed on shore or been pulled up, dead, in fishing nets. However, no live giant squid has been captured, nor has one been seen in its native element. Most of what is known about giant squid has been derived from these specimens and from the remains of giant squid specimens found in the stomachs of whales, primarily sperm whales.
Consider the giant squid: the largest size of the giant squid is between 60-70 feet as determined from pieces of the creatures that have been found7. It should weigh in at close to 1 to 2 tons. In addition to its large size, the giant squid also has the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, with each larger than your typical dinner plate!
The giant squid’s territory is in the depths of the ocean, up to 3000 feet below the surface of the ocean, in a world that is as foreign and deadly to us as is the vacuum of space8. It, as with other squid, does not live on the ocean floor, as an octopus does, but lives, instead, between the surface and the bottom, a state easily maintained by its natural buoyancy.
In addition to its size and habitat, the giant squid’s physical makeup also differs from the squid normally consumed by people: instead of sodium chloride in its system, biologists have found ammonium chloride. Snacking on Architeuthis would be similar to sucking on a bottle of your favorite ammonia floor cleaner, without the lemon scent. Nummy.
Other than these small differences, the giant squid is similar to other species of squid. It has a mantle, which is where its internal organs are found. Along the length of the mantle is a funnel, used for expelling waste, water, and for locomotion10 — the squid ejects water through the funnel to push it along the water.
The giant squid has eight arms, each containing several suckers; to make the suckers even more interesting, the edges of the suckers have a jagged set of “teeth”11 to help the squid grasp prey.
The giant squid also has two longer feeding tentacles used to push food into the squid’s mouth, which resembles a parrot’s beak. A large parrot. A large beak. It also can squirt ink to confuse predators, matching its smaller cousins capability 12.
Other than these facts about the squid’s physical makeup, little is known about how the squid acts in its environment, a void that scientists have been trying to fill for the last several years.
In Search of…
There have been numerous attempts to study giant squid in its natural environment. Two expeditions have been sent to Kaikoura Canyon, off of New Zealand, the first in 199713, and the second of which occurred in February and March of 199914. Both of these expeditions were under the leadership of Dr. Clyde Roper from the Smithsonian Museum, probably the world’s leading expert on the giant squid. He is also one of the few people to actually taste a sample of giant squid, and it is from his reaction that I pull my “ammonia without the lemon scent” taste description.
The Kairkoura Canyon is considered a favorable spot for finding the giant squid because several specimens have been found by fishermen in the area, and sperm whales also like to hunt in the area — a good indication as sperm whales feed on giant squid.
While neither expedition was able to capture images of the giant squid, neither trip was considered a failure due to the other information the scientists were able to find, and the observations they were able to make. In addition, during the trip in 1999, Dr. Roper was able to examine a captured, dead giant squid that was in very good shape, something that doesn’t always happen when squid are caught up in fishing nets as the creatures are very fragile.
Using manned submersibles isn’t the only approach to filming giant squids. Another approach used whales, with scientists attaching video cameras to whales before they begin their hunting dives. I have seen these films, and though they haven’t, yet, been successful (the cameras tend to get knocked off by other whales), this approach is an innovative effort17.
Robotic submersibles have also been used to try and capture images of the giant squid, including the MIT Sea Grant Autonomous underwater robot16. Unfortunately, all of these efforts have not succeeded in filming an adult giant squid in its natural habitat.
However, folks like Dr. Roper aren’t giving up in their efforts. Dr. Roper is already talking about an expedition back to Kairkoura in the Spring of 2000.
Unfortunately, the 2000 expedition wasn’t successful.
So What About the Attacks?
One major question that remains about the giant squid is its behavior; specifically would the giant squid attack boats and people. The more I learn about this creature, the more I wonder whether the giant squid was attacking boats and people as food sources — or perhaps just trying to find a ride home.
The giant squid inhabits that nether region of the ocean that is hundreds to thousands of feet below the surface, but not at the bottom of the ocean. Its entire physical makeup is suited specifically to this environment. The main reason that the giant squid has been found dead and washed up on shore is most likely because of clashing ocean streams, cold water meeting warm water.
The giant squid lives in cold water that can get trapped above a layer of warm water. This pushes the poor creature to the surface. The squid’s natural boyancy makes it difficult for it to sink beneath this warm water, and I imagine the hostile surface area weakens the giant squid to a point of desperation. So, what’s a good way to return to the depths? Why, hitch a ride on one creature it knows dives to the depths: whales. And since boats can look like whales…
Now, attacking a submarine as a food source makes a bit more sense, as these craft are much closer to the giant squid’s preferred environment than a boat on the surface of the water. However, a submarine would strongly resemble a whale, a creature the squid knows it can’t beat, so its hard for me to believe that the squid would attack a naval submarine because it considers it “food”.
As for giant squids attacking a whale, a creature the same size as it but weighing many, many times more than the squid — again, this doesn’t make sense unless the squid is desperately hungry. We know, though, that a giant squid defends itself from the feeding whale, which is why there are squid sucker scars found on whales, but the giant squid wouldn’t have a chance against an adult whale. However, it might have a fighting chance against a smaller, juvenile whale, which would explain the sighting of a young whale fighting with the squid, and the squid shown at the surface mentioned by the lighthouse men earlier — the giant squid was still wrapped around the young whale in combat, and the whale dragged the creature to the surface. Going back to my original hypothesis about why a giant squid would grab a boat, the giant squid attached to the young whale is not going to let go when it’s on the surface. Hence, the look of a battle.
Okay, so my guess is just that, a guess, and most likely not an accurate guess at that. But I can’t help thinking its a better interpretation of the boat attacks then the giant squid leaving its perfect little world to venture to the surface, an almost guaranteed act of death for the squid, just to nosh on a tasty new takeout.
The truth of giant squid behavior is out there, waiting for folks like Dr. Roper to find.
Updated for 2004
The majority of giant squid research is moving, more and more, to Australia and New Zealand. In particular, one of the leading researchers now is Dr. Stephen O’Shea at Auckland University of Technology.
O’Shea was also the one to tentatively identify the new species of giant squid discovered recently (“giant squid” is really a category of squid, rather than any one species), calling it Colossal Squid, or by it’s scientific name, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni.
The Colossal is an amazing find, and may actually be the squid at the root of so many stories we hear. However, we’ll never know for sure until we can see it, as well as it’s cousin, Architeuthis, alive, adult, and in their native habitat.
So even now, the search continues…
Photo of Squid, © National Resource Center for Cephalopods2
Don’t just read about the Kraken — hear Chris Hall recite the famous Tennyson poem at the BBC Nature web site.
Image of Kraken from Museum of Unnatural Mystery3
5 Sorry, dead link
Early illustration of giant squid, by Professor A.E. Verrill of Yale, from Ocean Planet6.
Diagram of a squid from Ocean Planet9.
Photo of submersible used to search for giant squid in 1999 expedition, NIWA/NASA15.
Also check out the The Octopus News Magazine Online.