Giant Squid – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world


Giant Squid – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world

Fear of the Unknown

The scientists in the submersible couldn’t believe their eyes. Seven hundred metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, near Chichi Island off the Japanese coast, they had finally come face to face with the kraken of legend. Suspended head-first and spotlit by the beams of the submarine, there it was in full view and perfect focus; arms clamped to a lump of bait, calmly watching them with eyes the size of dinner plates. Almost all the reported encounters over the centuries had involved this sea monster viciously attacking any potential predators. That day back in 2012 was the first time anyone had managed to get close enough to film the giant squid in its natural habitat, so their hearts were beating madly, not just through fear, but with the sheer thrill of discovery.

Monsters are meant to be scary, and we have a rich tradition of stories about these particular entities. In his atmospheric poem ‘The Kraken’, Alfred Tennyson tried to capture the mystery surrounding it:

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

About 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.

The poem concludes with a warning that one day the kraken will come up from its deep-sea world and reveal itself to us:

There hath he lain for ages, and will lie

Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Tennyson recognised the power of these monsters to thrill us, but how accurate are our perceptions of them, and how have they changed as, over time, we have learned more about the real creatures on which these myths and legends are based?

We may not have seen a sea monster but most of us have met one in our nightmares and imaginations. Monsters and the sea – they go together like vampires and castles or zombies and graveyards. In our minds certain places seem to hold fear and that fear is distilled into a monstrous form. We’ve always done it. Our fear of sea monsters has a long and distinguished pedigree in myth, legend and literature. It goes all the way back to ancient Greece, to the tale of Odysseus and his rather troublesome journey back from Troy to Ithaca. Among the many trials he and his crew had to face was the sea monster Scylla.

The various descriptions of Scylla give her a tentacled body including six heads on long necks, each armed with rows of murderous teeth. In Metamorphoses, Ovid described her transformation from beautiful nymph to monster. When she rejected the advances of the sea god Glaucus, he went to the sorceress Circe for a love potion. When Circe decided she wanted Glaucus for herself, she vowed to eliminate her rival, poisoning the pool in which Scylla bathed, and turning her into a hideous monster, who was always on the offensive.

The most famous description of the monster in action comes from Homer’s Odyssey. Dressed in his armour, sword in hand, Odysseus stood ready to fight her off at the prow, but when she pounced, her thrashing arms proved too fast for him:

Then we entered the Straits in great fear of mind … We could see the bottom of the whirlpool all black with sand and mud, and the men were at their wit’s ends for fear. While we were taken up with this, and were expecting each moment to be our last, Scylla pounced down suddenly upon us and snatched up my six best men. I was looking at once after both ship and men, and in a moment I saw their hands and feet ever so high above me, struggling in the air as Scylla was carrying them off, and I heard them call out my name in one last despairing cry. As a fisherman, seated, spear in hand, upon some jutting rock throws bait into the water to deceive the poor little fishes, and spears them with the ox’s horn with which his spear is shod, throwing them gasping on to the land as he catches them one by one – even so did Scylla land these panting creatures on her rock and munch them up at the mouth of her den, while they screamed and stretched out their hands to me in their mortal agony. This was the most sickening sight that I saw throughout all my voyages.

Scylla wasn’t real of course, but she wasn’t totally fanciful either. The descriptions of those long heads and tentacles must have emerged from genuine encounters with octopuses or squid, either at sea or as beach-bound wrecks. Giant squid are not solely referred to in classical poetry. Both Aristotle and Pliny described creatures of huge dimensions in their works of natural history. The head of Pliny’s giant squid caught off the coast of Spain was ‘equivalent in size to a cask of fifteen amphorae’ (more than 600 litres) and could hardly be encircled by a man with both arms. The tentacles were upwards of nine metres long and covered in knots ‘like those on a club’. Its body weighed over 300 kilos.

Fuelled by tales from sailors returning home from the edge of the world, with stories of their ships being wrapped in multiple slimy arms, the legend of the kraken was born. The story of the kraken has been around since at least the late thirteenth century, when an old Icelandic saga describes a journey across the Greenland Sea where the sailors meet a couple of enormous sea monsters. One was called Hafgufa, which literally translates as ‘sea mist’, a creature of such gigantic proportions that it could swallow whales whole, seeing ships and sailors as rather more of an hors-d’œuvre. This marine behemoth apparently remained submerged for long periods before lunging above the surface with its huge jaws, engulfing everything in its orbit.

This monster was not only in our imagination: serious naturalists believed in its existence too. In his 1735 work Systema Naturae, the book that laid the foundations of modern scientific classification, Carl Linnaeus officially recognised a giant sea monster living in the seas off Scandinavia as a member of the squid or octopus family, and (rather strangely, given its huge size) named it Microcosmus marinus, meaning ‘small sea world creature’. However, he did admit to having no first-hand experience of the species, adding, ‘It is said to inhabit the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal …’ Unsurprisingly the entry was quietly dropped from later editions.

In the mid-eighteenth century Erik Pontoppidan, the Bishop of Bergen, included the kraken in his Natural History of Norway, describing it as an island-sized creature with arms that could engulf and drag down the largest man-of-war. More dangerous than the beast itself was the whirlpool it created. Another Scandinavian author, the Swede Jacob Wallenberg, likened the kraken to the Leviathan of the Old Testament book of Job, Jonah’s whale (see Chapter 25: Whale).

But as time went on, our idea of sea monsters began to change. As we explored the oceans over the following centuries, and gradually increased our knowledge of marine life, the Scylla-type monster and the kraken merged into a genuine, living creature: the giant squid.

In 1861 the French steamer Alecton was just off the Canary Islands when the crew sighted what was described at the time as a ‘sea-monster’. They chased after the creature and eventually managed to harpoon it; then they attempted to haul it up on to the deck using ropes. Unfortunately the ropes cut through the animal’s body and the head end slid back beneath the waves, leaving only the spear-shaped tail behind.

The Alecton’s captain later submitted his account of the incident to the French Academy of Sciences, only to have his claim to have caught a sea monster firmly rebuffed by a member of the academy, Arthur Mangin. Mangin pronounced that no ‘wise’ person – ‘especially a man of science’ – would ‘admit into the catalogue those stories which mention extraordinary creatures like the sea serpent or the giant squid, the existence of which would be … a contradiction of the great laws of harmony and equilibrium which have sovereign rule over living nature as well as senseless and inert matter’.

The giant squid takes pride of place as the personification of the terror of the deep sea. No wonder, with its huge conical body, enormous eyes, long tentacles with tooth-fringed suckers and – instead of a mouth with teeth – a huge, pointed beak. To us it is unearthly, grotesque and mysterious; the perfect alien living almost invisibly among us. Its habitat is the inky blackness of the deep ocean, far beyond the reach of sunlight, and we are only afforded tantalising glimpses of this beast when a gobbet of suckered arm washes ashore, or an injured specimen is found roiling in a deep-sea trawler net. As we’ll discover, that can be exciting enough, and challenging for the specialists at London’s Natural History Museum, but there’s more to sea monsters and our need for them than you might think.

Mathias Clasen, Assistant Professor in Literature and Media at Aarhus University in Denmark, identifies our fascination with monsters – both real and imaginary – as a basic human need:

I would argue that a monster is an unnatural, dangerous creature; but there are borderline cases where naturally occurring creatures are so strikingly weird that they look unnatural to us. One example would be the giant squid, which is, almost literally, a monster. It’s very big, it looks weird, it has a very strange morphology, so just looking at a giant squid with its strange beak and long tentacles with suction cups containing teeth, it is almost in itself monstrous.

The giant squid may indeed be a real creature, but it is a very alien-looking one. Most encounters with this strange animal are on the surface, when the squid is sick or dying and so lashes out with those long tentacles when a boat approaches. Over time, its strange behaviour and appearance inevitably led to associations with sea monsters, as Edith (‘Edie’) Widder, CEO and senior scientist at the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Florida, points out:

You’ve got this creature that has eight lashing arms and two slashing tentacles growing straight out of its head; it’s got serrated suckers and a parrot beak that can rip flesh. It’s got an eye the size of your head, a jet-propulsion system and three hearts that pump blue blood – I think that’s about the most alien thing you could ever imagine.

Humans are often fearful of creatures that don’t conform to the way we expect animals to look – like us. Spiders, snakes and scorpions are classic examples of this irrational fear of ‘otherness’ as are squid, as Emily Alder, Lecturer in Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, indicates:

Unlike say, mammals, with whom it’s easy for humans to identify, the kraken is monstrous – it defies the familiar body organisation of other animals, and raises questions about how the natural world is organised; but at the same time it appears to have recognisable features – parallels of hands and a face; like humans but not like humans.

Paradoxically, as Emily Alder explains, the more we got to know about the real giant squid, the more the creature took centre stage in fictional depictions of sea monsters: ‘I think it’s really after the Enlightenment, and all its expansion of knowledge about the natural world, that the kraken becomes a kind of real, biological entity, as well as a mythological one; and that seems to stimulate fictional stories to a much greater extent.’

Two famous works of nineteenth-century fiction – both set on the high seas – feature sea monsters: Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick and Jules Verne’s 1870 work Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. In the former, Captain Ahab’s ship the Pequod comes across a huge creature, which the chief mate describes as:

the great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it … A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within its reach. No perceptible face or front did it have, no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct, but undulating there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.

In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a thrilling tale of man against squid, Verne’s Captain Nemo comes across a pack of ‘poulpes’ (which strictly translated from the French means ‘octopuses’, but is usually rendered into English as ‘giant squid’), which attack the Nautilus and kill a sailor. It is ‘poulpe’ fiction at its best:

What a scene! The unhappy man, seized by the tentacle and fixed to the suckers, was balanced in the air at the caprice of this enormous trunk. He rattled in his throat, he was stifled, he cried, ‘Help! help!’ These words, spoken in French, startled me! I had a fellow-countryman on board, perhaps several! That heart-rending cry! I shall hear it all my life. The unfortunate man was lost. Who could rescue him from that powerful pressure? However, Captain Nemo had rushed to the poulpe, and with one blow of the axe had cut through one arm. His lieutenant struggled furiously against other monsters that crept on the flanks of the Nautilus. The crew fought with their axes. The Canadian, Conseil, and I buried our weapons in the fleshy masses; a strong smell of musk penetrated the atmosphere. It was horrible!

For one instant, I thought the unhappy man, entangled with the poulpe, would be torn from its powerful suction. Seven of the eight arms had been cut off. One only wriggled in the air, brandishing the victim like a feather. But just as Captain Nemo and his lieutenant threw themselves on it, the animal ejected a stream of black liquid. We were blinded with it. When the cloud dispersed, the cuttlefish had disappeared, and my unfortunate countryman with it. Ten or twelve poulpes now invaded the platform and sides of the Nautilus. We rolled pell-mell into the midst of this nest of serpents, that wriggled on the platform in the waves of blood and ink. It seemed as though these slimy tentacles sprang up like the hydra’s heads. Ned Land’s harpoon, at each stroke, was plunged into the staring eyes of the cuttle fish. But my bold companion was suddenly overturned by the tentacles of a monster he had not been able to avoid.

Even well over a century after it was written, this still makes for terrifying reading.

Another classic account came from H.G. Wells. In 1896 Wells published The Sea Raiders, a book that piqued the public’s imagination with a particularly ferocious version of the giant squid that Wells termed Haploteuthis ferox. These huge creatures terrorise the coast of England, horribly devouring any humans who have the misfortune to encounter them:

The rounded bodies were new and ghastly-looking creatures; in shape somewhat resembling an octopus, with huge and very long and flexible tentacles, coiled copiously on the ground. The skin had a glistening texture, unpleasant to see, like shiny leather. The downward bend of the tentacle-surrounded mouth, the curious excrescence at the bend, the tentacles, and the large intelligent eyes, gave the creatures a grotesque suggestion of a face. They were the size of a fair-sized swine about the body, and the tentacles seemed to him to be many feet in length.

The hero of the book, Mr Fison, was ‘horrified, of course, and intensely excited and indignant, at such revolting creatures preying upon human flesh’. After shouting at them, he tries to drive them off by throwing rocks at them, but they move towards him, ‘making a soft, purring sound to each other’. It is Wells’s refusal to have the creatures defeated by the humans that appeals to Emily Alder: ‘I like The Sea Raiders partly because the creatures get away with it. Often in late Victorian gothic literature the monster is subdued, destroyed and punished in the end. But these monsters appear, terrorise the sea for a few months and then they vanish, and nobody knows where they have gone.’

Verne and Wells based their accounts on what was then known about the real-life kraken but neither was a writer with any tendency to underplay the dramatic. This raises an interesting question: how important is accuracy and how real do our monsters need to be? Is it that we need monsters, we have to have something to frighten us and battle against? And that no matter what the facts really are, we will distort them?

Our continued obsession with these monsters in literature, over such a long period of time, raises a question. Do we need them for reasons that may not always be obvious, least of all to ourselves? The way they are portrayed – in myths, novels and films – suggests that we actually enjoy being scared witless. Mathias Clasen has made a special study of monsters in films, games and books:

The striking thing about these kinds of monsters is that they don’t really exist, but they play a huge role in our mindscapes: in our dreams, our nightmares, our stories, myths, and so on. So monsters say things about human psychology, and I would argue that we can’t help but project fearful monsters into our surroundings.

He believes that to really understand why this should be, we need to look at human evolution and biology:

Humans are the most successful large animal on the planet, but we are also fragile, and unspecialised, and weak; and possibly the most fearful organism on earth. We’re afraid of things that exist in the world, but we’re also afraid of things that only exist in our own imaginations. Given our inability to defend ourselves against predators, what we do is to anticipate and imagine danger, and in doing so we tend to embellish and exaggerate naturally occurring dangerous creatures, and make them monstrous – even more terrifying.

Watching monster films, reading scary books or playing frightening fantasy computer games could be seen as the mental equivalent of going to a gym. Just as having a fit body allows you to run away from danger fast, or to turn and fight off an attacker, so a mind exercised by role-play helps prepare us mentally for the decisions we would make in any terrifying situation. They also, as Mathias Clasen explains, give us a paradoxical form of comfort:

All the objects and the situations in the world that scare us and frighten us become fascinating. So we love watching TV shows about zombies, as it allows us to get an insight into our own reactions to fearful situations – but in a safe context. After all, almost nobody dies from watching a horror film.

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So reading about, or even playing the part of, a monstrous giant squid terrifying little humans in the middle of a vast, hostile sea is really a rehearsal for a genuinely dangerous situation that we might one day encounter. But is any of it based on any reality? In the unlikely event of coming face to face with a giant squid, is it likely to start gnashing its enormous beak and grabbing us with its sucker-covered tentacles? Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs at the Natural History Museum, thinks not: ‘When people think of the giant squid they think of them pulling down boats and attacking sailors, but the depths they live at means this really isn’t possible. The only time they are seen at the surface is when they’re dead or in distress.’

There are, though, some suggestions that during the Second World War submarines may have been attacked – or at least investigated – by giant squid. But not all such encounters have been so hostile. In 2012 Edie Widder was part of the ground-breaking project to film a 3-metre-long giant squid some 14 kilometres off the coast of Chichi Island in the North Pacific.

Previously the only footage of a giant squid was of a specimen that had been hooked by a fishing boat. There were photographs taken in 2004 by Japanese scientist Tsunemi Kubodera, who submerged a camera deep into the sea, but capturing the giant on moving film has proved remarkably difficult. This is not for want of trying, but squid are easily frightened away by the bright lights and the noise of the vessels and equipment. Edie’s experience, though, was entirely different. The lure they used to attract the giant was a metre-long diamondback squid lit by a light that mimicked deep-sea bioluminescence. The sub itself used quiet electric thrusters that made a minimal amount of noise.

Edie remained on the surface in the research boat, but was in constant contact with her colleagues operating the sub beneath them. They thought they might get a glimpse, if they were really lucky, of this terrifying monster, but what appeared centre stage and in perfect focus in front of the submersible was a strikingly beautiful animal, filmed for the very first time in its deep-sea home. Breathtaking footage shows the squid suspended in the blackness, 700 metres below the surface, looking inquisitively at the submarine in front of it. For Edie Widder, the giant squid surpassed her wildest expectations:

To see it so brilliantly bronze and silver, it really did look as if it were carved out of metal. The arms were undulating, the huge, blue eye was staring at us most of the time, I thought almost with an intelligence; and the detail was so astonishing after expecting to see just a fleeting glimpse, and instead you could study it, and that was magic.

But there were more surprises to come. When the sub returned to the surface, the scientists examined the diamondback squid they had been using as bait, expecting it to have been ripped to shreds by that fearsome beak. And yet as Edie recalls, the squid had fed very delicately, taking only small pieces of flesh. This is a result of a bizarre quirk of squid anatomy: because the animal’s gullet passes through its brain, it must feed slowly and very carefully to avoid causing damage to itself. In turn, though, it is only vulnerable to a single predator: the giant sperm whale, which at up to 19 metres long and weighing as much as 70 tonnes, dwarfs even the monstrous giant squid.

The picture that is emerging of this mighty mollusc is of a gentle giant that is scared of loud noises and bright lights, an epicure that pecks delicately at its food and that seems to show both curiosity and intelligence. Hardly a Scylla or a kraken. We know that squid have titanic battles with sperm whales, because sometimes the whales’ skins are scarred with sucker marks as the smaller creature tries to defend itself. But the giant squid is certainly not the aggressive man-eating predator the old stories have led us to believe.

And the more we find out about the squid, the more fascinating it becomes. So there was enormous excitement when a massive specimen was found in a fishing net off the Falkland Islands in 2004. Jon Ablett of the Natural History Museum was in charge of its preservation:

It was sent over frozen on a commercial boat, which meant it was in really good condition. The first thing we did was defrost it, which took about four days, and made me pretty unpopular because deep-sea squid have ammonia in their tissues, and when it defrosted it released this into the atmosphere, making most of the building smell of urine for quite a few days. Once it was completely defrosted we began the fixation process, injecting the tissues with formalin dissolved in seawater, which stops the tissues from rotting.

Ablett and his colleagues named the giant squid Archie, after its scientific name Architeuthis dux; only later discovering, to their embarrassment, that the specimen was in fact a female. Archie now resides in a huge 10-metre-long tank, specially made for the museum by the company that previously made tanks for the artist Damien Hirst. Unfortunately the scientists are not entirely sure how heavy the specimen is because when they tried to weigh the animal, it was so heavy it broke the museum’s scales: ‘All we can say is that it is over 200 kilos, and it took thirteen of us to haul it into its tank.’

And there she sits today, in the Spirit Collection of the Natural History Museum, one of the largest and best-preserved giant squid specimens in the world. We can now stand and look at her eye to enormous eye, and when we do, somehow she doesn’t seem like a monster any more. As we discover more and more about the biology and lifestyle of these mysterious creatures, is there a danger that their power to scare us will eventually fizzle out? Will we have to turn our highly charged imaginations to another unexplored realm – space perhaps – and come up with a new breed of scary monster? Mathias Clasen suggests that monsters of one kind or another will always be with us: ‘There is no inclination that scientific progress has banished monsters from the shadows of our imaginations, so we will probably continue to be afraid of very strange things, including sea monsters.’

Emily Alder agrees, and believes that there is still a huge amount to learn about these mysterious creatures and the places where they live: ‘Really we know very, very little about the deep sea: even now, there’s only so far down we can get, and it’s hard to collect specimens or conduct research; so it’s still a very mysterious region of the globe from which it’s not hard to imagine that all kinds of mysteries might lurk.’

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I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.

Alexander the Great




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