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.
Albert, Lord Tennyson “The Kraken”
Allan linked to an Australian story about a giant squid (Architeuthis Dux) supposedly attacking a French yacht taking part in the Jules Verne round-the-world sailing trophy race. I say supposedly not because I’m doubting the veracity of the sailors; but because I doubt that the squid was actually ‘attacking’ the yacht.
I’m not a marine biologist, and never once took a class in marine biology, but I’ve always been interested in monsters of the deep, including Architeuthis Dux — the giant squid. A few years back, I wrote a four-part series that included coverage of the giant squid, taking almost three months to research stories about the creatures on the internet; reading every book I could find on the subject.
No live giant squid has ever been captured or photographed, and there are only a few scattered eyewitness stories about the creatures. We do have specimens, found washed up on shore or pulled up in fishnets (though by the time they’re untangled from the nets, the bodies can be badly mangled).
The largest known giant squid specimen is over 18 meters (60 feet); eyewitness accounts have put them up to 30 meters (100 feet) in length. That’s the height of a ten-story building.
It’s eight arms are studded with suckers, each of which is ridged with a bony substance, making them as sharp as a serrated blade. Much of it’s length, though is in it’s feeding tentacles, which accounts for the giant squid’s low mass for its height. It’s eyes are the largest in the animal kingdom, as big as a dinner plate, and it rends its prey using sharp parrot-like beaks larger than your hands. Clack clack. Clack clack.
The 18 meter giant squid weighs over a ton, but lest you think this would make one prodigious plate of calamari, unlike its smaller brethren, the giant squid’s system is based on ammonium chloride rather than sodium chloride. It would taste similar to your floor cleaner. Without the lemony freshness.
The reason for this difference in chemical composition is that the giant squid’s territory is in the deepest parts of the ocean, between 900 meters (3000 feet) and 1800 meters (6000 feet) down. The ammonium chloride helps the giant squid survive both the pressure and the cold of these depths.
Because scientists have never observed living specimens of a giant squid, their behavior is based on extrapolating known behavior of smaller squid. From this, we know the giant squid is a predator, and an intelligent one, being the most intelligent of the cephalopods (marine mollusks also including the cuttlefish and octopus). It can be relatively aggressive, though will usually run away when threatened, as most intelligent creatures do (which excludes Alpha Males, who stand and take it Like a Man).
Architeuthis Dux only known enemy is deep diving toothed whales such as a sperm whale. Though of the same length as the whale, it’s only about 1/60th of its size, and nowhere near as aggressive.
So, after hearing all this, what’s with the stories about giant squid attacking ships? Well, to answer that I have to mix equal parts fact and conjecture.
(See that’s the great thing about not being an expert on something: you can indulge in all of the conjecture you want with nary a concern about having anything like facts to back you up.)
The atmosphere at the surface of the water would be hellish for a giant squid, so they don’t come up voluntarily. Most of the instances in which bodies have been found have been in fishnets. However, occasionally, the cold water in which the giant squid lives can be trapped above warm water from deep underwater currents, which forces the cold water and its trapped squid to the surface. Since the giant squid is naturally buoyant, it can’t return to the depths on its own.
This explains how the giant squid is found on the surface of the water. But what about the ships? Well, now, that’s where the conjecture enters.
Jules Verne based his monster in 20000 Leagues Under the Seas on a story that circulated in his day, about a giant squid attacking a French battleship. And there have been other fairly well known cases of ships ‘attacked’ by giant squid, including a US submarine. Conjecture has been that the giant squid is attacking the ships for food, but this makes no sense at all. One reason is that the giant squid would be completely out of its territory, and in considerable confusion and agony. It would not be interested in food at the moment, but in escaping this horrible place it found itself.
Additionally, ships closely resemble toothed whales, a known predator of giant squids. A giant squid would never attack a toothed whale for food. In fact its that latter “ships resembling whales” that leads to my own particular conjecture about why giant squids ‘attack’ ships.
Consider the poor squid — cast adrift in an alien environment, prevented by its natural buoyancy from returning to the depths. Through the painful glare of the surface light, it ‘see’s a whale. It may know that whales are an enemy, but it also knows (remember, they are quite intelligent) that whales are from its own environment. Personally, I’ve always felt that the giant squids aren’t attacking the ships as much as they are wrapping themselves around the ships in the faint hope that the ‘whale’ will at least return it to the depths.
Take me hommmmme, blubber boy!
A variation of this conjecture, and one that doesn’t grab at your hearts as much but is much more likely, is that the squid is propelled into the upper atmosphere in about the same location as the boat, and, thinking it’s a whale, the giant squid adopts its usual defense mechanism of wrapping its tentacles around the ‘whale’, using the only weapons it has for defense — it’s suckers and beak.
Of course, poor thing has no chance, and will eventually perish in this horrid environment, under the terrible strain of the light pressure, in water that is far too warm, and in unbreathable air that is far, far too bright. And even its enemy, it’s friendly, sane, known enemy, betrays it ultimately when it turns out to be cold, and lifeless, and crawling with some kind of weird vermin.