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 Here Be Sea Monsters

By Mike Deegan, Head of Fleet Operations


A few years ago I was intrigued to note that the Natural History Museum here in London had a preserved Giant Squid laid out for all to see (when we can all visit museums again!).  These creatures really are the stuff of legends and its not difficult to see why : the one in London is laid out for its full 8.6m (28ft) length but is not thought to be fully grown – it is believed that fully grown adult females can grow to 13m (42ft) in length (think the length of a National Express Coach) with fully grown adult males can get up to 10m (33ft) long.  London’s example is a female and has been called “Archie” after its Latin name Architeuthis dux.  She was caught by fishermen in the Falklands and died at the surface.  The fishermen had the presence of mind to immediately preserve her in ice.



The Natural History Museum’s preserved Giant Squid, Archie


The Natural History Museum’s Curator of Molluscs, Jon Ablett, was called on to preserve the specimen and admitted to being a little awe struck as he usually worked on slugs and snails etc.  Once the carcass had been preserved and prevented from rotting, the main problem was how to display this magnificent creature.  The answer came from an unusual source, the artist Damien Hirst who had pickled other animals for display.  His team constructed the tank in which she is displayed – being so large the only place to display her to best effect (ie laid out to her full length) is across the Tank Room in the basement.


We are only now with all the sophisticated equipment available to us in the 21st century beginning to understand these most elusive of creatures – even on a Noble Caledonia holiday, where once in a lifetime experiences are the norm – you are unlikely to see a Giant Squid.  They live at such incredible depths and are generally only surface when dying – hence the legend I suspect. 


When seafarers first set out from these shores they can only have marvelled at some of the fantastic creatures they came across.  Can you imagine seeing a bird as large as an Albatross for the first time  for example?  Or a Blue Whale for the first time when the only fish you were used to seeing might have been Cod, Mackerel, Plaice or Bream, Perch or Salmon?  You must have thought this was a real monster.  (By way of an aside, can I admit here that even after a career of over 40 years, the first 21 years of which were at sea in the Merchant Navy, I only saw my first Blue Whale about 5 years ago when I was visiting a ship in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico!  I am delighted to admit that even for an old sea dog like me, Noble Caledonia can still provide new experiences!)  So a fully grown Giant Squid, not only of a size to drive the imagination wild, but also thrashing around in its death throes with what must have seemed like hundreds of huge arms and long tentacles, must have driven terror into the heart of even the hardiest of early mariner.  Over the centuries, and now as well as then, sailors never let the facts get in the way of a good story so embellishments adorned stories of encounters of these mythical creatures.  Tales of fierce battles and unlikely heroism would have abounded  generating in the public mind a perception that, out there, beyond the edges of the known world, were fierce creatures who would attack and devour an unwary mariner as soon as look at them!


Perhaps this fear of the unknown and exaggeration was the basis of the Norse legend of the Kraken – hugely feared by Norse explorers and fishermen of old.  If the fish were in abundance on the surface, Norse mythology suggested only the Kraken could be driving them there.  On the one hand this was good and made for full nets but on the other hand this huge sea monster was said to surface, attack and drag ships and their unwitting crews to a watery grave where they would be eaten whole.  Alfred Lord Tennyson preserved the myth when he wrote in 1830 his sonnet (unusually for those of you with a literary bent with 15 lines) The Kraken :


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
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
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.



James Mason as Captain Nemo is attacked by a Giant Squid in the 1954 film Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea


James Mason, as Captain Nemo, famously fought the Kraken in the 1954 film “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” when he was caught in one of the hideous creature’s tentacles and rescued by a harpooner played by a young Kirk Douglas.  (Worryingly, many of my younger colleagues here at Noble Caledonia Head Office had never heard of James Mason when I asked – o me miserum or should that be tempis fugit??)  More recently Captain Jack Sparrow’s big screen encounter with this most awesome of (computer generated) creatures in Pirates of the Caribbean : Dead Man’s Chest brought the legend to a new, younger audience.


But what of the reality?


In 2012, a group of American scientists led by Edith Widder filmed a Giant Squid for the first time in its natural habitat.  This gave naturalists the chance to study the character of this creature for the first time.  They quickly deduced the reason it had been so hard to track a live one down previously was that they were in reality timid creatures who were nervous of the bright lights and noise of the submersible craft that were able to operate at the depths at which it spends most of its time.  By silencing the submersible’s engines and only using bioluminescence, the creature was not frightened away and used its beak (yes – they have a parrot like beak) to peck at the bait on offer.  So in one encounter, scientists learned that the Giant Squid is timid (probably as a result of it wishing to avoid encounters with Sperm Whales – a known predator : examples of Giant Squid have been found missing tentacles presumably as a result of encounters with Sperm Whales), has a light reddish colour as the only colour emitted at such depths is blue which turns its skin hue black so it is able to hide in the unlit depths and it pecks at its food rather than rip into it with the beak.  So it is difficult to imagine an animal more further removed from the man-eating terror of the deep for which the Kraken has become known.


The Giant Squid is a cephalopod which has 8 arms and 2 very long tentacles which surround a central mouth.  Each arm and tentacle is lined with suction cups which have small but sharp teeth by means of which the squid can attach itself to its prey.  Sperm Whales have been found with wounds to their head consistent with attack from the long tentacle of a Giant Squid.  These cups contain ammonia – when the example in London was first displayed, there are tales that the whole museum stank of urine as the cups released their ammonia!  They have a large single eye – the largest eye (about the size of a dinner plate) of any animal on earth and are only thought to be able to discern changes in colour, not colour itself.  Like all cephalopods, they are jet propelled – by sucking water into their “head” (more correctly called the Mantle) and exhaling it at force they can move quickly away from any perceived peril but generally move by exhaling water rhythmically. 


Giant Squid are thought to feed mainly on deep sea fish and other Giant Squid – the remains of one were found in the digestive track of another specimen found dead on a beach. 


So as you cruise the wide blue yonder with us at Noble Caledonia, spare a thought for the mysteries that lurk beneath the waves as well as those more visible.  Spare a thought too for those early explorers, fishermen and mariners who came across this magnificent creature for the first time and the terror that would invoke. 


As I suggested earlier, you are highly unlikely to see a Giant Squid on your travels with us – but ask the Marine Biologist on your Expedition Team about them.  They will be only too pleased to tell you all you want to know (I know – on a recent visit to the office I asked one of our talented Expedition Leaders about them and we spent a very pleasant afternoon discussing Giant Squid).




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