Giant Squid, the Alecton, and Recent Legends

It is difficult to find any three accounts of the giant squid that agree on the upper limits of its size. In Deep Ocean, Tony Rice cautiously estimates that they can reach a size of at least 49 feet. Bill Bryson, in his much celebrated work A Short History of Nearly Everything, says that their tentacles can reach a length of 60 feet. While C.P. Idyll, writing in 1964 estimated that the size of Architeuthis can range from 50 to 55 feet. He considered a specimen found off the coast of New Zealand as an entirely new species, Architeuthis longimanus, which measured in at 57 feet (and thus implied that this species may grow even larger). However, Architeuthis longimanus has since been recognized as being the same as Architeuthis dux. Perhaps more incredible than this are modern accounts which have experts claiming that the giant squid could grow anywhere from 150 to 200 feet long. Richard Ellis finds this to be irresponsible and explains that: “Because Architeuthis is such a spectacular animal, those who would include it in their catalog of monsters often increase its length substantially, and often its weight as well”. Thus, more than any property deep sea monsters may actually possess, their designation as monsters always seems to tempt even the most honest and respectable of observers to inflate their proportions to even more monstrous measurements.

According to the modern record, the first verifiable observation of the giant squid was made by the crew of the French corvette the Alecton while sailing between Madeira and Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Yet while this event did not happen until November 30th 1861, sperm whalers knew of the existence of these creatures because the quarry they hunted would sometimes regurgitate pieces of the squid.

The problems facing this encounter with a giant squid are representative of the problems facing deep sea biology in general during the 1800s. Most noticeably, however, are the difficulties involved in ascertaining the historical accuracy of this one event. The condition of the specimen observed, as well as how much of it the crew of the Alecton were able to secure, varies widely in the historical record.

According to Ellis, the specimen was already dead when discovered. This in itself demonstrates a problem that faced early biological studies of the deep sea. Whenever deep sea creatures make an appearance on the surface of the ocean they are most likely dead or dying, which made it difficult for naturalists of the time to observe living specimens . More than this “deep-sea creatures fairly burst with the release of the pressure under which they have lived […] and oftentimes the specimens are scarcely more than detached fragments by the time they can be preserved”.

Yet the story of the Alecton’s squid is far from certain. As Ellis states, the crew, wanting to bring the corpse on board, approached the body and shot it repeatedly as they came (to ensure that the creature was in fact dead): “They got a rope around the animal […] but as they were hauling it in, the body separated from the tail, and they were left with only the tail section”. Writing in 1998, Ellis may have had access to a wider range of sources than most; however, his is the only account I was able to attain which stated that the creature was in fact dead when discovered. Writing in 1964, Idyll gives a very different story. He states that the squid was alive, and if not well, functional enough to evade the pursuing Alecton for some time before they were able to hit it with a harpoon and get the rope around it. This time: “A violent movement by the animal broke the harpoon loose and tore off part of the tail fin. The maimed squid disappeared. The piece torn from it was estimated to be about a tenth [of its weight]”.

An article written in June 1941 by W. Ley for the Natural History Magazine makes the encounter far more violent, and, from the view of science, far less rewarding. In this account the creature was still alive, but far less lively:

Since the Alecton was a war vessel, there was no lack of armament. Cannon balls were shot at and through the lazy kraken […] and harpoons were thrown at it. […] After three hours of intensive naval warfare, the squid suddenly vomited (one of the canon balls must have hit a vital spot).

In this version it is again the weight of the squid, and not its efforts to free itself, which led to the majority of it falling back into the sea. This time, however, the part of the squid that was salvaged was totally unusable and thrown away shortly after.

It is rather remarkable that so many projectiles would have been directed towards this “lazy kraken”, and it is perhaps ironic when considering the statement made by Lieutenant Frédéric-Marie Bouyer, the Alecton’s commander, who wrote: “Finding myself in the presence of one of those strange creatures which the Ocean brings forth at times from its depths as if to challenge science, I resolved to study it more closely and try to catch it”. Again, the sheer size of some deep sea denizens makes them difficult to collect and observe. In the 1800s, it seems, sea monsters were much better studied with the help of projectiles.

Going even further back in articles written by A. E. Verrill and A.S. Packard Jr. in 1875 and 1873, respectively, the encounter of the Alecton is mentioned only in passing along with a number of other sightings, and no mention of any part of the creature being retrieved is given. Despite the new space opened up for the study of history in the natural sciences, there are still difficulties in ascertaining the accounts made by people even a hundred years ago, not to mention a thousand. Furthermore, the very size of some deep sea creatures made the collecting of specimens nearly impossible until comparatively recently. This fact left early naturalists only the hope that something would wash ashore or float to the surface in good condition in order to prove or disprove their theories.

For More Information:

Bruun, Anton F., Sv. Greve, Hakon Mielche and Ragnar Spärck, eds. The Galathea DeepSea Expedition: 1950-1952. London: George Allen and Unwin LTD, 1956.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2003.

Eldredge, Niles and Steven M. Stanley, eds. Living Fossils. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984.

Ellis, Richard. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.

Idyll, C.P. Abyss: The Deep Sea and the Creatures That Live in It. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1964.

Ley, W. Scylla Was a Squid. Natural History Magazine. 2007. 25 Feb. 2007.

Nielsen, Kristian Hvidtfelt. In Search of the Sea Monster. Endeavour, vol. 30 (2006).

Nigg, Joseph, ed. The Book of Fabulous Beasts: A Treasury of Writings from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Packard, A.S. Jr. Colossal Cuttlefishes. The American Naturalist, vol. 7, No. 2. (Feb., 1873).

<http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0147%28187302%297%3A2%3C87%3ACC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5>.

Rice, Tony. Deep Ocean. London: The Natural History Museum, 2000.

The Linnean Society of London. An Essay on the Credibility of the Existence of the

Kraken, Sea Serpent, and Other Sea Monsters: With Illustrations. London: William Tegg, 1849.

Verrill, A.E. The Colossal Cephalopods of the North Atlantic. II. The American Naturalist, vol.9, No.2. (Feb.,1875).

<http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0147%28187502%299%3A2%3678%ATCCOTN%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4>.

Verrill, A. Hyatt. The Ocean and Its Mysteries. New York: Duffield & Co, 1925.

Wolff, Torben. Danish Expeditions on the Seven Seas. Copenhagen: Rhodos International Science and Art Publishers, 1967.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17365736

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