giant squid is a deep-sea dweller that can grow to the size
of a bus. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2003)
The French dispatch steamer Alecton was cruising
off the Canary Islands late in November of 1861 when its crew
spotted something unusual in the water. It looked like a large
sea monster with many arms and a long tail. The gunboat, firing
cannon and musket at the strange apparition, pursed it until they
could get close enough to throw harpoons into it's body. The harpoons
wouldn't stay in the flesh for long, but finally the crew managed
to get a noose around the tail of the monster. As they tried to
pull the thing aboard, the rope tightened and cut though the animal.
Most of the creature sank into the sea, but the ship's captain,
decided to take the tail of the thing back to the French Consul
at Tenerife. From there the tail, and a report about the creature,
made its way to the French Academy of Sciences.
Alecton attempts to capture a giant squid in 1861.
At the Academy the report was widely ridiculed.
No serious scientist could believe in such a creature. As one
member said, It was against the laws of nature.
Against the laws of nature or not, the creature
seen by the Alecton's crew did exist. Today we know that
this creatures is real. What the Alectron sailors saw was the
giant squid, or its close cousin, the colossal
The existence of the giant squid, genus Architeuthis,
is well accepted by science though few have ever been seen, and
little is known about their habits.
Giant squid are carnivorous mollusks that have a
long, torpedo shaped body. At one end, surrounding a beak-like
mouth strong enough to cut through steel cable, are five pairs
of arms. One pair, thinner and longer than the rest, are used
to catch food and bring it to the mouth. Just past the mouth are
the eyes. Eyes that are the largest in the animal kingdom, getting
as big as eighteen inches across.
All squid move through the ocean using a jet of
water forced out of the body by a siphon. They eat fish, other
squid, and perhaps some argue, in the case of the largest species,
whales. The legend of the Kraken,
a many armed sea monster that could pull a whole ship under, may
have been based on the giant squid.
The largest giant squid ever measured was discovered
at Timble Tickle on November 2, 1878. Three fisherman were working
not far off shore when they noticed a mass floating on the ocean
they took to be wreckage. They investigated and found a giant
squid had run aground. Using their anchor as a grappling hook
they snagged the still living body and made it fast to a tree.
When the tide went out the creature was left high and dry. When
the animal died, the fishermen measured it and then chopped it
up for dog meat. The body of the squid was twenty feet from tail
to beak. The longer tentacles measured thirty five feet and were
tipped with four inch suckers.
Encounters with Whales
giant squid and a Sperm whale locked in mortal combat.
(Copyright Lee Krystek, 2003)
We know the giant squid tangles with whales from
eye-witness accounts. In October 1966, two lighthouse keepers
at Danger Point, South Africa, observed a baby southern right
whale under attack from a giant squid. For an hour and a half
the monster clung to the whale trying to drown it as the whale's
mother watched helplessly. "The little whale could stay down for
10 to 12 minutes, then come up. It would just have enough time
to spout - only two or three seconds - and then down again." The
squid finally won and the baby whale was never seen again.
Giant Squid have been seen in battle with adult
whales too. In 1965, a Soviet whaler watched a battle between
a squid and a 40 ton sperm whale. In
this case neither were victorious. The strangled whale was found
floating in the sea with the squid's tentacles wrapped around
the whale's throat. The squid's severed head was found in the
video of a live Giant Squid
Sperm whales eat squid and originally it had been
thought that such battles were the result of a sperm whale taking
on a squid that was just too large to be an easy meal. The incident
with the Brunswick might suggest otherwise.
The Brunswick was a 15,000 ton auxiliary
tanker owned by the Royal Norwegian Navy. In the 1930's it was
attacked at least three times by giant squid. In each case the
attack was deliberate as the squid would pull along side of the
ship, pace it, then suddenly turn, run into the ship and wrap
it's tentacles around the hull. The encounters were fatal for
the squid. Since the animal was unable to get a good grip on the
ship's steel surface, the animals slid off and fell into the ship's
Perhaps, for some unknown reason, the Brunswick
looked like a whale to the squids. This might suggest that the
sperm whale is not always the aggressor in the battles. In fact,
though many sperm whales have been captured, few of their stomachs
seemed to contain parts of giant squids (though smaller squids
seem to provide a large portion of the sperm whale's diet)
Unfortunately for scientists, but good for the rest
of us, humans do not meet up with giant squids very often. (There
is at least one report from World War II of survivors of a sunken
ship being attacked by a giant squid that ate one of the party)
Squids are thought to be deep dwelling, open sea creatures. Work
by Dr. Ole Brix, of the University of Bergen, indicates the blood
of squids does not carry oxygen very well at higher temperatures.
A squid might actually suffocate in warm water.
piece of sperm whale skin damaged by squid suckers in a
life and death battle.
According to Dr. Malcom Clarke, of the Marine Biological
Association , temperature also seems to affect the squid's buoyancy
mechanism. Warm water will cause a giant squid to rise to the
surface and not be able to get back down. With water temperature
even higher at the surface, the squid maybe doomed. It is not
surprising then, that most squid groundings occur near where two
ocean streams, one cold and one warm, meet. Perhaps the squid
found himself suddenly in water too warm for him.
Despite numerous attempts rarely has anyone ever
seen a giant squid in the deep sea, so it is very hard for scientists
to know much about how they live. In 2004 scientists from National
Science Museum of Japan and the Ogasawara Whale Watching Association
were more fortunate and took the first live still pictures of
a giant squid in its natural habitat. Traveling to a known sperm
whale hunting ground about 600 miles south of Tokyo, they dropped
a 3,000 foot line baited with squid and shimp and armed with a
camera overboard. When a 26 foot long squid attacked the bait
the team was able to get hundreds of photographs. Two years later
the team from the National Science Museum of Japan was able to
get video of an 11 foot long female near the Ogasawara Islands,
about 620 miles south of Tokyo.
How big can a squid get? Some people have estimated
based on peices of carcasses found in the belly's of sperm whales
that they might grow as large as one hundred feet, though no squid
near this size has ever been scientifically documented. One unconfirmed
story, though, suggests they might get even larger. One night
during World War II a British Admiralty trawler was lying off
the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. One of the crew, A. G.
Starkey, was up on deck, alone, fishing, when he saw something
in the water:
it a Kraken or a Giant Squid?
"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." Starkey walked
the length the of the ship finding the tail at one end and the
tentacles at the other. The ship was over one hundred and seventy
five feet long.