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  Columnist: Edward Crabtree

Image credit: NHK/NEP/Discovery Chan.

Giant Squids: they're out there!

Posted on Thursday, 15 May, 2014 | 5 comments
Columnist: Edward Crabtree

The seamen wait with anxiety for news of their colleagues who have plumbed the depths in a bathysphere. They begin to haul the probe back up. They feel alarmed to see that all that is left of the vessel are chewed up cables and hissing oxygen feeds....

The success of Jaws had been a boon for all twelve year old boys, for who amongst us did not love a monster movie? This one was Tentacles (1977) and the star of the film was a monster squid on a killing spree. Of course, I knew even then that this was make-believe, just as much as the eight armed behemoth which ensnares the Nautilus in `Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea` was.

Another three decades later, in 2012, I was treated to another squid show. This one came from Japan’s National Science Museum. For about 23 minutes we see a silver/bronze beauty 630 metres down in the Pacific with almost human-like eyes. This 23 feet long wonder was filmed in its natural habitat for the first time: meet Architeuthis Deux, the giant squid. It is not fiction, it is fact.

Bigger than we thought.

That our oceans provide a home to some sizeable squids and octopi no one has ever doubted. The kinds of beasts that Jules Verne wrote about, however, have belonged to the cryptozoological twilight zone. Discussion of them has been relegated to unexplained journalism.

The Bible warns of a `dragon that is in the sea`. The seafarers of 12th century Norway whispered amongst themselves – using a word that refers to a tree trunk with its roots still attached – "Kraken". This could be of such a size as to be mistaken for an island. Then Alfred Lord Tennyson popularised the Kraken by penning a sonnet to it in 1830. The triffid creator John Whyndam would later make use of the name in The Kraken Wakes in the fifties. (This, though, is`xenobathetic intelligence` from space using our waters as a base.)

Tantalising evidence of a real giant squid would come ashore for hundreds of years in the form of sailor’s tales and rotted corpses, but lack of photographic proof kept them in the realm of the ones-that-got-away.

In 1854 the Danish zoologist Johannes Japetus Smith Sleenstrup came across what he took to be what was left of a giant squid on the Irish coast. He even gave it its name –Architeuthus Dux (`ruling squid`). He could not take the corpse back with him and he was given short shrift by the skeptoids of his day. Likewise, seven years later a 20 foot plus long squid evaded capture by the French crew of a gunboat called Alecton in November 1861 (Bord, p-128-129).

In 1873, however, a fisherman working off the coast of Newfoundland returned to base with a trophy: he had managed to slice off a squid’s tentacle. This was nineteen feet long on its own! It was since showcased in a museum in St John’s in Newfoundland.

That Canadian island seems to offer a haven to our giant squid. Every few decades squids of up to 30 feet long get beached up on the Newfoundland coast. A 21 foot long one was encountered in Trinity Bay there (Welfare and Fairley, p-108-109). Then in 2007 a 32 foot one was washed up on the same island – beating the 24 foot long remnant which arrived in the home of the Kraken, Bergen, West Norway.

We can still go twice better than that! In 1964 Bruce Wainwright, the director of Wildlife biology at New Brunswick, was privileged to be able to inspect ` a cigar shaped mass of flesh` - a squid carcass on the southernmost Bahama Island, Cairos. Apart from being 10 foot in diameter, this was 50 foot long. Fifty foot! (Welfare and Fairley, p-113-114.)

If we accept eye witness reports from credible witnesses then we can take it that squids can reach yet bigger dimensions. On night-watch duty on an admiralty trawler, J. D. Starkey lowered some light bulbs into the water of the Indian Ocean. He beheld the `green unblinking orb` of a vast squid. The body of the thing `filled my view as far as the eye could see` and he guessed the tentacles alone as being 2 feet thick! As he paced the length of his ship he kept it in sight throughout. The ship was 175 feet long! One hundred and seventy five feet! (Welfare and Fairley, p110-111.)

The squid’s brethren, the octopus, can also boast some giants in its family. Working for the Miami Sea Aquarium in 1964, Burton Clark was surprised to see a huge presence show up on the trace paper of a fathometer off the Florida coast. At the same time a sea man J.C Martin encountered an enormous octopus which floated alongside his vessel (Welfare and Fairley, p-144.)

Established marine biology has allowed for octopi in the range of 20 feet long, but there is hard evidence that this is too conservative of them. Looking again at the bottled remains of a thick skinned invertebrate that had washed up on the Florida shores some hundred years earlier, Joseph Gernaro a Professor of Molecular Biology determined that they had once belonged to an octopus. This must have been 200 feet long. This was, as he himself put it `enough to blanket Piccadilly Circus` Piccadilly Circus! (Welfare and Fairley, p-11-113.)

Denizens of the depths.

This would come as no surprise to those who study the new frontier of deep sea research. The talk in that field is all of `deep sea gigantism`. Deep sea gigantism is the tendency of creatures down there to reach unusual size. Such are the stringent pressures and temperatures in those zones that such an adaption is necessary.

Marine biologists think that there may be up to eight kinds of giant squid and, if you go 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface you can find the colossal squid or Mesonychoteuthus Hamiltoni which can be 43 feet in length.

We know that squids can exist in both freshwater and salt water and that they are most common around New Zealand, South America, some areas of Africa, and Antarctica. They have, however, been hard to study. Even doctor Clyde Roper, a zoologist with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who scours the globe for giant squid specimens, has never seen one himself! In 2006 the TV crew of Monster Quest had the bright idea of fixing a camera onto an averaged sized squid. They were rewarded with footage of a squid larger than a fishing trawler in the Sea of Cortez.

Squids are among the three hundred species of cephalopod, a type of mollusc. They have no backbones but a body composed of a mantle, fins and a head. They torpedo through the waters using jet propulsion. They have three hearts, big brains and some of them can change colour, or are bioluminescent.

They get through their five year or so long lifespan by eating fish, other squids and – sometime sperm whales (although the tables can be turned: the left-overs of a Colossal Squid were found in the stomach of a sperm whale in 1925.) They are formidable eating machines: as well as their eight paired arms, they have two longer tentacles. These are armed with suckers and inside those there are claws. To bite down on its prey, the squid has a parrot-like beak.

Squids have been around for 500 million years, and the good news is that they do not feature on the list of endangered species. For how long will they tolerate our proximity in their waters?

The silver death of the seas.

The giant squid keeps to itself. A cold-blooded creature the size of a bus that can wrestle with sperm whales is not to be tangled with however! The Norwegian sailors were right to fear the Kraken.

One account has it that a sailing ship off the coast of Angola was capsized by a giant squid. Then in the Nineteenth Century a 150 ton schooner, the Pearl, was seen by other sailors to be pulled beneath the waves by a tentacle beast. Survivors there were none. More fortunate was the 15,000 ton tanker called Brunswick which survived two such squid assaults in the 1930s (Welfare and Fairley, p-111.)

From the Second World War comes a story which would have excited Jules Verne. Following a bombardment by a German ship, Lieutenants Rolandson, Davidson R.N and R.E Grimari Cox of the Indian army were left to survive on a raft with some other soldiers. A vast tentacle reached out of the waters and clasped hold of one of the Indians `hugging him like a bear`. Cox tried to tear it away only to get wounded himself (Welfare and Fairley, p-107.)

Then in 2003 a hardened yachtsman, Olivier De Kersauson had the biggest scare of his forty year nautical career when, off the Portuguese island of Madeira, he saw tentacles as thick as his leg through the portholes as something seized his boat. Only when he cut the engine did the creature relent and let him on his way (BBC News online 15th June 2003.)

Look Down in Amazement.

Only a quarter of our blue planet consists of dry land. People like to remark that we know more about outer space than we do about our own waters. This may be overstating the case, but it is true that we have gained greater knowledge of dinosaurs than we have of what lies beneath our ocean’s waves.

We can now say without doubt that there are multi-limbed juggernauts rocketing their way through the icy depths. Should one ever try to gobble you up without do much as a dash of ketchup, then just try to remember that this planet is not the property of land dwellers.

An internet meme pictures a little squid saying: `If I were a Giant Squid (and God willing someday I will be) I’d be a lil irritated how people are so interested in aliens and Bigfoot and el chupacabra when here I am – an actual freakin’ monster!’

I continue to be interested in Bigfoot and aliens, but I can see the point here!

Edward Crabtree


Bord, Janet and Colin Modern Mysteries of the World: Strange Events of the Twentieth Century (London: Guild Publishing, 1989)

Welfare, Simon/ Fairley, John Arthur c. Clarke’s Mysterious World (London: book Club Associates, 1981)


Granu, David `The Squid Hunter` the New Yorker online – May 24th 2004

`Giant squid attacks French boat` BBC News online 15th January 2003 PLANET/HTML/squid-links-htm

Article Copyright© Edward Crabtree - reproduced with permission.

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