The Legendary Giant Squid

In the case of this famous deep-sea creature, the reality lives up to the myth

The legendary giant squid

The legend of the giant squid is thousands of years old. As early as the 4th century BC, Aristotle wrote of an enormous squid far larger than normal specimen. There have been stories ever since of a tentacled monster from the deep. The creature could do battles with great toothed whales. It had luminous eyes the size of saucers. The idea of such a beast captured the imagination of generations of people. The legend probably inspired the Norse legend of the kraken, a giant sea monster that could sink any ship with its colossal tentacles. In the 1500s, Danish sailors reported seeing strange fish floating upon the sea’s surface. They later named them sea monks because the animals’ flesh covered their bodies like a monk’s cloak.

In the 1850s, a scientist named Japetus Steenstrup realized that these sea monks were likely to have been squid. He described the giant squid for the first time as a scientific fact rather than as a mythological creature, giving it the Latin name Architeuthis. Soon after, the crew of a French ship, the Alecton, reported seeing a creature that matched Steenstrup’s description. The crew even managed to bring a portion of its tail back to shore. In the 1870 Jules Verne immortalized the squid as the ultimate deep-sea monster by casting it as the man-eating villain in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

From fiction to fact

Before the 1800s, the giant squid had been a creature of maritime mythology, much like mermaids or monstrous sea serpents. Amazingly for a creature of such incredible size, unverified eyewitness accounts and strange body parts were the only proof that the giant squid was real until the 1870s. That’s when several specimens washed ashore in Newfoundland and New Zealand. In 1873, a Newfoundland minister put one on public display in his own house. This constituted the very first exhibition of an intact giant squid. In 1878, fishermen caught another squid in Thimble Tickle Bay. This one was reported to measure a staggering 20 feet from one end of its mantle to the other.

The giant squid was a rare instance of the reality proving more exciting even than the rumor. Proof of its existence only served to fuel its reputation as the ocean’s deadliest monster. The discovery of suction marks on dead sperm whales sparked the idea that the two creatures regularly met in an archetypal clash of the titans. In reality, the sperm whale preys on the giant squid. But the motif of the two locked in battle has become entrenched in nautical imagery. In 1965, a Soviet whaling ship observed one such struggle, in which the 40-ton sperm whale died of asphyxiation, strangled by the squid’s tentacles. However, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the squid, whose severed head a whaling ship later found inside a sperm whale’s stomach.

Capturing the squid on camera

Made famous by sailors’ wild tales, embellished myths and a handful of washed up bodies; it wasn’t until very recently that scientists began to truly understand the nature of the giant squid.

The 2000s were full of landmark developments in terms of shedding light upon the true identity of the giant squid. A photographer shot the first image of a mature individual in 2002 on Goshiki Beach, Japan. Sadly, the squid died shortly afterwards due to attempts to capture it. The first photo of a live giant squid in its natural environment was taken two years later in 2004 at a sperm-whale hunting ground off Tokyo. Photographers attached bait and a camera/flash setup to a line measuring 3,000 feet. Then they lowered it into an area frequented by whales. After 20 attempts, photographers captured an image sequence of a giant squid attacking the lure. The record was verified not only by the size of the squid, which measured 26 feet, but also through DNA tests performed on the tentacle it left behind.

Also in 2004, a fishing trawler caught a specimen off the coast of the Falkland Islands and subsequently sent to the Natural History Museum in London. The 28.3-foot squid, named Archie, remains one of the most intact specimens ever seen. Most of the other giant squid corpses have suffered as a result of being washed ashore or have been partly digested after retrieval from the stomachs of sperm whales. A film crew from NHK and Discovery Channel achieved the quest to capture a live, mature giant squid on camera in its natural habitat in 2012. The crew filmed the squid by baiting it with artificial bioluminescence designed to imitate jellyfish in distress. The crew managed to film the 9.8-foot squid for 23 minutes before it eventually departed.

Dispelling the myths

The giant squid continues to inspire its fair share of legends. In 2003, the crew of a yacht sailing in the Jules Verne Trophy round-the-world race reported that a giant squid attacked. It latched onto the hull of the ship before letting go. A recent online hoax fooled over 500,000 people with an image of an enormous squid corpse on a beach in California, reportedly the victim of radioactive gigantism. However, our increased knowledge of this fantastic creature has dispelled some of the myths, such as the squid’s size.

Although eyewitness reports have suggested the squid can reach lengths of over 66 feet, the record for a scientifically documented squid is 43 feet. We now know that giant squid have eight arms and two longer tentacles. All are equipped with suction cups and lined with tiny serrated teeth. We know that it possesses a sharp beak used to shred its prey. We know that it has the largest eyes, with a diameter of almost 11 inches, of any living creature. Living at depths of over 3,000 feet, the squid use their enormous eyes to detect light variations in the deep water. We know that they prey predominantly on deep-sea fish and other squid species. Their only real predator is the sperm whale. Giant squid are masters of buoyancy control, their fleshy bodies filled with a solution that is lighter than seawater.

Our knowledge of giant squid has expanded exponentially since Danish sailors of the 1500s christened them sea monks. Our reactions have changed very little, though. We find ourselves no less fascinated by the reality than those long-ago men were by the legend.