The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World's Most Elusive Sea Creatureby Richard Ellis
The most mysterious and elusive of all sea creatures, the giant squidat least sixty feet long and weighing nearly a tonis also one of the largest. Yet for all its magnificent size and threatening undersea presence, Architeuthis has remained a mystery. Until now. In this marvelous and beautifully illustrated book, marine biologist, explorer, and artist… See more details below
The most mysterious and elusive of all sea creatures, the giant squidat least sixty feet long and weighing nearly a tonis also one of the largest. Yet for all its magnificent size and threatening undersea presence, Architeuthis has remained a mystery. Until now. In this marvelous and beautifully illustrated book, marine biologist, explorer, and artist Richard Ellis presents all that is known about the giant squid. Delving into myth, literature, popular culture, and science, he brings readers face to face with this remarkable creature. He also provides a thorough, compelling study of what is known and what is still to be discovered about this exotic animal that has never been studied alive. Interweaving his engrossing narrative with a wealth of fascinating illustrations and photographs, Ellis gives us the first comprehensive history of the only living creature that can truly be called a "sea monster."
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Read an Excerpt
Is the Sea
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath 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 man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
--Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, 1830
Architeuthis, the giant squid, is probably responsible for more myths, fables, fantasies, and fictions than all other marine monsters combined. In the Odyssey we read of Scylla, a horrible monster:
Her legs--and there are twelve--
are like great tentacles,
unjointed, and upon her serpent necks
are borne six heads like nightmares of ferocity
and triple serried rows of fangs and deep
gullets of black death. Half her length she sways
her heads in the air, outside her horrid cleft,
hunting the sea around that promontory
for dolphins, dogfish, or what bigger game
thundering Amphitrite feeds in thousands.
And no ship's company can claim
to have passed her without loss and grief; she takes
from every ship, one man for every gullet.
Also known as the kraken, the polyp (poulpe in the French of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers), and the sea serpent, the giant squid is, next to the shark, perhaps the most infamous animal in the sea. Aristotle introduced us to the teuthos, the giant squid, as differentiated from teuthis, the smaller variety. Somewhat later, in his Naturalis historia, Pliny discussed a "polyp" that plucked salted fish from the fish ponds of Carteia (on the Atlantic coast of Spain), and "brought on itself the wrath of the keepers, which owing to the persistence of the theft was beyond all bounds." The guards that surrounded the polyp were
astounded by its strangeness: in the first place its size was unheard of and so was its color as well, and it was smeared with brine and had a terrible smell; who would have expected to find a polyp there, or who would recognize it in such circumstances? They felt they were pitted against something uncanny, for by its awful breath it also tormented the dogs, which it now scourged with the ends of its tentacles and now struck with its longer arms, which it used as clubs, and with difficulty they succeeded in dispatching it with a number of three-pronged harpoons.
The head was as big as a cask and held 90 gallons; its arms ("knotted like clubs") were 30 feet long with suckers like basins holding 3 gallons, and teeth corresponding to its size. Its remains weighed 700 pounds. The longer tentacles identify the polyp as a squid, rather than an octopus, but whatever it was, this would appear to be the only record of a cephalopod coming ashore for any reason except to die. (Pliny told us that it was "getting into the uncovered tanks from the open sea," so perhaps these were somehow accessible to a deep-water inhabitant. The fact that the tanks held "salted fish" indicates that they were not holding tanks at sea, however.) Pliny, of course, depended upon the reports of others for his Naturalis historia, but if we assume that something like this actually happened in antiquity (even allowing for exaggeration), it is the only such occurrence in all the literature.
The many-armed sea beast lay relatively dormant, however, until it was resurrected by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), the Catholic archbishop of Sweden, a veritable fount of information on sea monsters. In his 1555 Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the People of the Northern Regions), he describes and illustrates several "monstrous fish," as follows:
Their forms are horrible, their Heads square, all set with prickles, and they have long sharp horn round about like a Tree rooted up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve Cubits long, very black, with huge eyes ... the Apple of the Eye is of one Cubit, and is red and fiery coloured, which in the dark night appears to Fisher-men afar off under Waters, as a burning fire, having hairs like goose feathers, thick and long, like a beard hanging down; and the rest of the body, for the greatness of the head, which is square, is very small, not being above 14 or 15 Cubits long; one of these Sea-Monsters will drown easily many great ships provided with many strong Marriners.
Olaus Magnus's Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus appeared in English in 1658 as A Compendious History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals, and Other Northern Nations. The descriptions and drawings that appeared on his maps firmly established the existence of many fabulous creatures, and were copied, reproduced, and modified for centuries, thus ensuring his place as one of the most important figures in the history of zoology. He described the Soe Orm as follows: "A very large Sea-Serpent of a length upwards of 200 feet and 20 feet in diameter which lives in rocks and in holes near the shore of Bergen."
One of the best-known drawings in Olaus Magnus's work is the one known as Les marins monstres & terrestres, lelquez on trouve en beaucoup de lieux es parties septentrionales (The Sea and Land Monsters That Are Found in Many Northern Places). This woodcut, supposedly the work of Hans Rudolph Manuel Deutsch (active in Switzerland around the middle of the sixteenth century), includes the Soe Orm. Les marins monstres then became the basis for Conrad Gesner's Historia animalium (1551-58), which is considered to be the basis of modern zoological classification. As Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Discoverers,
His Historia animalium, following Aristotle's arrangement, supplied everything known, speculated, imagined, or reported about all known animals. Like Pliny, he provided an omnium-gatherum, but now added the miscellany that had accumulated in the intervening millennium and a half. A shade more critical than Pliny, he still did not deflate tall tales, as when he showed a sea serpent three hundred feet long.
One of Gesner's more interesting drawings shows a hydra: a creature with seven heads, a long scaly body, two clawed feet, and a curled-under tail. In the text, the hinder part of the head was said to resemble a Turk's cap, which is not shown in the drawing--unless the "crown" on each of the seven heads is a Turk's cap. It is difficult to equate this seven-headed image with any known animal, but if we assume that the artist was trying to portray something with which he was completely unfamiliar, perhaps from descriptions that changed over time, it is not impossible to see the "heads" as arms, and the body as that of a large cephalopod. The clawed feet look like an imaginary addition (they have six toes), and while we will never know what Gesner had in mind, his "monstrous serpent" could be one of the earliest depictions of a giant squid.
Of course Gesner included many of the creatures originally depicted by Olaus Magnus, which were then repeated, often without change, by the Renaissance encyclopedist Edward Topsell, whose Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes appeared in 1607. Although Topsell's marine "beastes" have no feet whatsoever, they are recognizably the drawings of Olaus Magnus. Ulysses Aldrovandi (Depiscibus, 1613) and John Jonstonus (Historia naturalis, 1649) followed with their encyclopedias, and they faithfully repeated Magnus's drawings and fanciful stories, including sea monsters with features of a giant squid.
Two centuries after Olaus Magnus, another ecclesiastic, the Danish missionary Hans Egede (who eventually became the bishop of Greenland), visited that icy island early in the eighteenth century, in hope of converting the natives to Christianity. Two settlements were established, the first in 1721 and the second in 1723. While the Greenland Eskimos proved to be unsusceptible to the faith that was being foisted on them, they were disastrously sensitive to the smallpox virus carried by one of the Danish missionaries, and most of them died. In Egede's story, Det gamle Gronlands nye perlustration (published in 1741), he recounts the following episode:
As for other Sea Monsters...none of them have been seen by us, or any of our Time that ever I could hear, save that most dreadful Monster, that showed itself upon the Surface of the Water in the year 1734, off our colony in 64 degrees. The Monster was of so huge a Size, that coming out of the Water its Head reached as high as the Mast-Head; its Body was as bulky as the Ship, and three or four times as long. It had a long pointed Snout, and spouted like a Whale-Fish; great broad Paws, and the Body seemed covered with shell-work, its skin very rugged and uneven. The under Part of its Body was shaped like an enormous huge Serpent, and when it dived again under Water, it plunged backwards into the Sea and so raised its Tail aloft, which seemed a whole Ship's Length distant from the bulkiest part of its Body.
By this time the Dutch and the British were energetically slaughtering the bowheads of Greenland and Baffin Island for their baleen plates and oil, so Egede must have been familiar with whales. He had Pastor Bing draw a picture of the monster, which was reproduced in his Perlustration (published in English as A Description of Greenland in 1745), and since Egede was known to be a sober, reliable observer, the picture thus became of the earliest illustrations of a sea monster based on a reliable eyewitness account. Does Bing's drawing look like a giant squid? Not really, but if we factor in the modifications attributable to ignorance and exaggeration, we are left with no other choice.
Clergymen seemed to have a particular affinity for sea monsters (or perhaps it was vice versa), for the next to write about the monstrous creature is Bishop Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan of Bergen, author of The Natural History of Norway, published in 1755. The good bishop firmly believed in the kraken, and maintained that the fishermen he spoke to told him it was a mile and a half in circumference. Referring to this beast as "the largest and most surprising of all the animal creation" and "incontestibly the largest Sea-monster in the world," the bishop wrote:
It is called Kraken or Kraxen, or, as some name it, Krabben ... He shows himself sufficiently, although his whole body does not appear, which in all likelihood no human eye ever beheld (excepting the young of this species) its back or upper part, which seems to be in appearance an English mile and a half in circumference, (some say more, but I chuse the least for greater certainty) looks at first like a number of small islands, surrounded with something that floats and fluctuates like sea weeds.... At last several bright points or horns appear, which grow thicker and thicker the higher they rise above the surface of the water, and sometimes they stand as high and large as the masts of middle-siz'd vessels.
By all accounts, what the bishop was describing was a giant squid. "The creature," he added, "does not, like the eel or the land-snake, taper gradually to a point, but the body, which looks to be as big as two hogs-heads, grows remarkably small at once just where the tail begins. The head in all kinds has a high and broad forehead, but in some a pointed snout, though in others it is flat, like that of a cow or a horse, with large nostrils, and several stiff hairs standing out on each side like whiskers."
The nostrils and whiskers are somewhat problematical, but the rest of the portrayal is a remarkably accurate description of Architeuthis--by somebody who has no idea what sort of creature he is looking at. For landlubbers used to animals with a head at one end and a tail at the other, the kraken's tail, with its pointed apex, would have been the head, and the arms trailing behind obviously suggested a tail. Pontoppidan continues: "They add that the eyes of this creature are very large, and of a blue color, and look like a couple of bright pewter plates. The whole animal is of a dark brown color, but it is speckled and variegated with light streaks and spots that shine like tortoise shell." He mentions two places, Amunds Vaagen in Nordfjord and the island of Karmen, where carcasses had been found at high tide.
Bishop Pontoppidan took the deposition of a certain Captain von Ferry, who claimed to have seen a "sea-snake" passing his ship in August 1746. Upon being informed of the presence of the serpent, yon Ferry came about in order to get nearer to it. At the bishop's request, he described it in a letter written to the Court of Justice at Bergen:
The head of this sea-serpent, which it held more than two feet above the water, resembled that of a horse. It was of a greyish color, and the mouth was quite black and very large. It had large black eyes, and a long white mane, which hung down to the surface of the water. Besides the head and neck, we saw seven or eight folds, or coils, of this snake, which were very thick, and as far as we could tell, there was a fathom's distance between each fold.
Although this description doesn't immediately suggest one, von Ferry's serpent, with the "seven or eight folds ... which were very thick," looks more and more like a squid. If one is familiar with snakes and has never seen (or expected to see) a giant squid, the long tentacles, which have been measured at 35 feet, suggest nothing more than some sort of a serpent. It is therefore possible that giant squid are not only responsible for sea-serpent sightings but are responsible for the very name.
An Englishman named Charles Douglas, sailing off Lapland in the HMS Emerald in 1769, on one of the first European oceanographic voyages, interrogated the Norwegians about the kraken and the sea serpent, and while no one could tell him anything about the kraken, they knew a lot about what they called "Stoor Worms." Douglas recounted one sighting, described by the master of a Norwegian vessel, of three of the worms, "floating upon the surface of the sea, twelve parts of the back of the largest appearing above water; each part being in length about six feet ... so that upon the whole he judged the animal could not be less than twenty-five fathoms long, and about one in thickness." From Douglas's description (which was read to the Royal Society in 1770), the "worms" might very well have been the arms of a giant squid, either dead or dying, given what we now know about the presence of Architeuthis in Norwegian waters.
In the Pictorial National Library magazine for 1849, in an anonymous article about sea serpents, there is an account that, the author states, "will suffice to show that the sea-serpent in no stranger in the waters of the northern and eastern hemispheres." The description is attributed to the Reverend Mr. Deinboll, the archdeacon of Molde:
On the 28th of July, 1845, four men were out on the Ramsdale-fiord, fishing. About seven o'clock in the evening, a long marine animal was seen slowly moving forward. The visible part of the body appeared to be forty to fifty feet in length, and moved in undulations like a snake. Body round, dark color, and several feet thick. Its fore part ended in a sharp snout, and its immense head was raised above the water in a semi-circular form. The color of the head was dark brown, the skin smooth. No eyes were noticed, nor mane nor bristles on the throat.
A hundred and one years later, in Vike Bay in the very same Romsdalfjord, a giant squid measuring 30 feet in total length was found by fishermen. It is hard to fault those who believed that the 1845 animal was a sea serpent. In fact, in describing the 1946 incident, Bjorn Myklebust wrote that before the squid stranded, it had been seen swimming around the fjord. "It is therefore possible," he wrote, "that the observed sea serpents may simply have been ... giant squids that were lying and splashing at the surface.... It thus seems likely that many stories about sea serpents can be reduced to stories about giant squids."
In 1848, the frigate Daedalus was sailing off the Cape of Good Hope when the crew spotted
an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and as nearly as we could approximate by comparing with the length of what our main topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal a fleur d'eau, no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation.
This description came from Peter M'Quhae, the Daedalus's captain, who was responding angrily to a request from the Admiralty that he confirm or deny the rumors about a sea serpent. M'Quhae went on to write that its diameter was "15 or 16 inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake," and that "it had no fins, but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back." The Illustrated London News ran the story, accompanied by drawings done from M'Quhae's description, and the Daedalus monster entered the lists as one of the best-described serpents of all time. Sir Richard Owen--who so disbelieved Darwin that he tried to have him excommunicated--attempted to argue that the animal was really a gigantic seal.
To his dying day, Sir Richard Owen refused to admit even the slightest possibility that monsters might exist outside the zoological framework that he understood. In response to one "sighting," Owen wrote, "The observers have no expert knowledge of zoology; their observation is, therefore, without merit." Of M'Quhae's sighting, he noted, "It is very probable that no one on board the Daedalus ever before beheld a gigantic seal swimming freely in the open ocean." With his penchant for bombastic overstatement, Owen finished off his critique (which was published in the Times) with the statement, "A larger body of evidence from eye-witnesses might be got together in proof of ghosts than of the seaserpent." In his angry response (also printed in the Times), M'Quhae accused Owen of flagrantly misquoting him, and wrote:
Finally, I deny the existence of excitement, or the possibility of optical illusion. I adhere to the statement, as to form, colour, and dimensions, contained in my official report to the Admiralty; and I leave them as data whereupon the learned and scientific may exercise the "pleasures of imagination" until some more fortunate opportunity shall occur of making a closer acquaintance with the "great unknown"--in the present instance assuredly no ghost.
If we look at the drawing of the Daedalus monster with Architeuthis in mind, the identification of the "monster" leaps off the page. We see not an "enormous serpent," but rather the tail of an enormous cephalopod. Captain M'Quhae obligingly drew an eye where he thought it ought to go, but in his description he never mentions it. He does, however, mention that "no portion [of its anatomy] was used in propelling it through the water, either by horizontal or vertical undulation." No vertebrate can move through the water without some visible means of propulsion, but a squid, which uses water ejected from the funnel or the mantle to move, could easily conform to M'Quhae's description.
HMS Plumper was in the North Atlantic in 1848 when a strange creature was sighted. In the Illustrated London News for April 10, 1849, an article, which was signed "A Naval Officer," contained the following description:
Being due west of Oporto [Portugal] I saw a long black creature with a sharp head, moving slowly. I should think about two knots, through the water in a north westerly direction, there being a fresh breeze at the time, and some sea on. I could not ascertain its exact length, but its back was about twenty feet if not more above the water; and its head, as near as I could judge, from six to eight ... the creature moved across our wake towards a merchant ship barque on our lee quarter, and on the port tack.
With a dark "body," pointed head, no mouth, and only the faintest suggestion of an eye, the illustration that accompanied the description of the Plumper's sighting looks like no living creature--except possibly a giant squid.
I do not propose to assign all sea-serpent sightings to Architeuthis, but there is a strong possibility that many of those seamen and passengers who saw a "monster" of some sort were actually seeing the giant squid. Let us examine the serpents of the Scandinavian ecclesiastics Bishops Egede and Pontoppidan. As Henry Lee points out in Sea Monsters Unmasked, Egede's illustration of a sea serpent can be easily made to look like a giant squid if we eliminate the eye and the mouth and have the "blow" come from the funnel instead of from the mouth. Pontoppidan's accounts are based largely on hearsay and the report of von Ferry, as well as one from a Governor Benstrup, but he also mentions the carcasses that washed ashore with regularity on the coasts of Norway. Is it not possible that mid-eighteenth-century Norway saw an invasion of giant squid like the one that occurred in Newfoundland in the late nineteenth century and New Zealand most recently?
Even a limited review of the "sea serpent" literature produces any number of cases where the giant squid becomes a strong candidate. When British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse wrote The Romance of Natural History in 1861, he concluded with a chapter entitled "The Great Unknown," in which he summarized much of what was known about sea monsters up to that time, including a retelling of the 1845 kraken sighting in Romsdalfjord.
Gosse then quotes Sir Richard Owen, who wrote, "Few seacoasts have been more sedulously searched, or by more acute naturalists ... than those of Norway. Krakens and sea-serpents ought to have been living and dying thereabouts from long before Pontoppidan's time to our day, if all tales were true; yet they have never vouchsafed a single fragment of the skeleton to any Scandinavian collector." Eleven years later, a kraken "fragment"--consisting of an entire giant squid--would appear off Newfoundland, and now that an explanation appeared, it became possible to interpret Gosse's story as a description of what the Norwegians now call kjempeblekksprut. Particularly significant are the "waving motion" behind the animal (the arms); the "head" (a tentacular club); and the absence of eyes.
In 1886, an Australian named Charles Gould wrote a book called Mythical Monsters. It is largely about Chinese and Japanese dragons and other Asian monsters (Gould traveled widely in the Far East), but there is a chapter devoted to sea serpents. It commences with a discussion of the ecclesiastics Bishops Pontoppidan and Egede, as well as the early annalists such as Olaus Magnus and Aldrovandi, and then gets to the meat of his discussion: accounts of unidentifiable animals at sea. He introduces one Arthur de Capell Brooke, who sailed around the northern coast of Norway in 1820, and published his observations in Travels Through Sweden, Norway and Finnmark in 1823. Brooke seemed to be fascinated by sea serpents, because he recorded many sightings:
Item: Off Otersoen.... It was of considerable length, and longer than it appeared, as it lay in large coils above the water to the height of many feet. Its head was shaped like that of a serpent; but he could not tell whether it had teeth or not. He said it emitted a very strong odour and that the boatmen were afraid to approach near it.
Item: At Alstahoeg I found the Bishop of the Nordlands [another clergyman!] who was an eye-witness to the appearance of two in the Bay of Sorsund, on the Drontheim Fjord.... They were swimming in large folds, part of which were seen above the water, and the length of the largest he judged to be about one hundred feet. They were of a darkish grey colour, the heads hardly discernible, from their being almost under water.
Captain Brooke believed these reports, not only since they came from the mouths of fishermen ("an honest and artless class of men, who, having no motive for misrepresentation, cannot be suspected of a wish to deceive"), but also because some of the informants were "of superior rank and education," including the governor of Finnmark, Mr. Steen; the clergyman of Carlso, the Reverend Deinboll of Vadso; and the bishop of Nordland.
Gould also included an account from a Mr. McLean, the parish minister of Eigg. In 1809, he was rowing along the coast of Coll (in the Hebrides) when he spied an animal just offshore: "Within a few yards of it, finding the shallow water, it raised its monstrous head above water and, by a winding course, got, with apparent difficulty, clear of the creek where our boat lay.... Its head was somewhat broad, and of a form somewhat oval, its neck somewhat smaller; its shoulders, if I can so term them, considerably broader, and it tapered towards the tail, which last it kept pretty low in the water." Given such scanty details, it is difficult to envision the animal, but with no mouth, eyes, ears, or mane, it bears little resemblance to any known quadruped. Again it is possible to refer the description to some sort of invertebrate, but admittedly, only in the vaguest terms. We must assume that McLean saw something that did not fit the description of any creature known at that time.
In The Zoologist (subtitled A Popular Miscellany of Natural History), another Hebridean sighting, this one in 1872, is presented in some detail in an essay by two gentlemen of the cloth, Messrs. John Macrae and David Twopeny. (Macrae was the minister of Glenelg, Invernesshire; Twopeny was the vicar of Stockbury, Kent.) Sailing down the Sound of Sleat, with "two ladies, F. and K., a gentlemen, G.B., and a Highland lad," the party beheld a dark mass about two hundred yards astern, which proceeded to rise in symmetrical lumps, then sank out of sight, and surfaced again. They estimated its total length as 45 feet. It then "began to approach us rapidly, causing a great agitation in the sea. Nearly the whole of the body, if not all of it, had now disappeared, and the head advanced at at a great rate in the midst of a shower of fine spray, which was evidently raised in some way by the quick movement of the animal--it did not appear how--and not by spouting."
The next day they spotted the creature again, only this time "it looked considerably longer than it did the day before ... it looked at least sixty feet in length. Soon it began careering about, showing but a small part of itself, as on the day before, and appeared to be going up Lochourn." According to Macrae and Twopeny, several other people saw the creature. It was not until the book's publication that the authors were made aware of "Pontoppidan's Natural History or his print of the Norwegian sea-serpent, which has a most striking resemblance to the first of our own sketches." (Their essay is entitled "Appearance of an Animal, Believed to Be That Which Is Called the Norwegian Sea Serpent, on the Western Coast of Scotland, in August, 1872.")
It is worth noting that many "sea serpent" appearances that were recorded before Architeuthis was first described occurred in those waters later revealed to be the sometime haunts of the giant squid. Olaus Magnus said that the Soe Orm lived near the shore of Bergen; Bishops Pontoppidan and Egede saw their monsters off Norway and Greenland; the Reverend Dienboll's appeared in Romsdalfjord; and the controversial serpent of the Daedalus was spotted off the Cape of Good Hope. It seems more than a passing coincidence that sea serpents often inhabit those waters known to be occasionally occupied by giant squid, and vice versa.
In 1905, as if to dispel Owen's criticism that it was never scientists who saw these monsters, two naturalists, E. G. B. Meade-Waldo and M. J. Nicoll, on a scientific cruise aboard the Earl of Crawford's steam auxiliary yacht Valhalla, sighted a dark brown animal with a great frill on its back off the coast of Brazil. In the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, Meade-Waldo published his observations:
I looked and saw a large fin or frill sticking out of the water, dark seaweed-brown in colour, somewhat crinkled on the edge. It was apparently about 6 feet in length and projected from 18 inches to 2 feet from the water. I could see, under the water to the rear of the frill, the shade of a considerable body. I got my field glasses on to it (a powerful pair of Goerz Trieder), and almost as soon as I had them on the frill, a great head and neck rose out of the water in front of the frill; the neck did not touch the frill in the water, but came out of the water in front of it, at a distance of not less than 18 inches, probably more. The neck appeared about the thickness of a slight man's body, and from 7 to 8 feet was out of the water.... The head had a turtle-like appearance, as had also the eye. I could see the line of the mouth, but we were sailing pretty fast, and quickly drew away from the object, which was going very slowly. It moved its head from side to side in a peculiar manner; the colour of the head and neck was dark brown above, and whitish below--almost white, I think.
Michael Nicoll's similar description was published alongside that of Meade-Waldo, and Nicoll also contributed a drawing, which is reproduced here. It is certainly possible to read their descriptions as a monster with a "frill," but it is almost as easy to see a description of a giant squid swimming at the surface: the frill could be one of the tail fins, the neck (not attached to the "frill") one of the long tentacles, and the head its flattened end. The "turtle-like" appearance of the eye is admittedly a problem, but if something looks like the "head" of an animal, we expect to see an eye somewhere, and Meade-Waldo and Nicoll may have only imagined it. (There have been many "sea monster" sightings that can be explained as Architeuthis if we assume that the observers misidentified the eye.) As for the "peculiar" movement of the head (which Nicoll described as "a curious wriggling movement"), it is more likely that they were describing an object that was not a head, but something else--a tentacle, perhaps. We know virtually nothing about the locomotion of giant squid at the surface (if indeed they ever locomote at the surface), but there may be a possibility that these creatures swim with a tentacle out of the water, which would go a long way toward explaining the sightings of a large-bodied animal with a long neck. (If a giant squid ever swam with both tentacles out of the water, we would probably have reports of two-headed monsters.)
Major General H. C. Merriam of the U.S. Army sighted a sea serpent while sailing off Wood Island, Maine, in August 1905, and wrote about it in a letter to Dr. F. A. Lucas, director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The letter (reproduced in its entirety in the appendix to V. C. Heilner's Salt Water Fishing) contains this description of a "monster serpent":
Its head was several feet above the surface of the water, and its long body was plainly visible, slowly moving toward our boat by sinuous or snake-like motion.... It had no dorsal fin unless it was continuous. The color of its back appeared to be brown and mottled, shading down to a dull yellow on the belly. The head was like that of a snake, and the part shown above the surface--that is the neck--appeared to be about 15 to 18 inches in diameter. If it had any pectoral fins we did not observe them. I estimated its length at 60 feet or more.
The Australian David Stead wrote about fish and fishing, whales and whaling, and, occasionally, monsters. He obviously believed that Australians had been shortchanged in the sea-serpent department, so in Giants and Pygmies of the Deep he recounts several Australian sightings. The first occurred off Bellambi Reef, New South Wales, in 1930, and observers described a "vast monster of the serpent type," with a mouth like a pelican's beak. It is obvious to Stead that the open-mouthed beast could only have been a rorqual whale, probably a minke. Only two days, later, however, another monster appeared off Scarborough ("a few miles north of the first occurrence"), but this time, it could not be so easily explained away. It looked like a huge black snake, some 80 or 90 feet long, and it threw its huge head in the air, then ducked below the surface, giving the impression that it was feeding. Stead concludes that this really was a monster, "a great Calamary or Cuttlefish or giant Sea Squid, of the type frequently called Polypus." He then discusses several additional Australian sightings, and concludes by saying, "In all of these and in many others there seems to me to be enough evidence to identify the beasts seen, not as any kind of real serpent, but the terrible gigantic Calamary."
Then we have the tale of the Grace Line steamer Santa Clara, sailing from New York to Cartagena in 1947. Some 118 miles off North Carolina, the ship struck a marine creature. Third Officer John Axelson saw
a snakelike head rear out of the sea about 30 feet off the starboard bow of the vessel. His exclamation of amazement directed the attention of the other two mates to the Sea Monster, and the three watched it unbelievingly as in a moment's time it came abeam of the bridge where they stood and was left astern. The creature's head appeared to be about 2 1/2' across, 2' thick, and 5' long. The cylindrically shaped body was about 3' thick, and the neck 1 1/2' in diameter.... The visible part of the body was about 35' long.
Since none of the descriptions include a mouth or eyes--features that would probably attract immediate attention--it seems possible to assign all the elements of the Santa Clara sighting to the giant squid. The "snakelike head" could be the club end of one of the long tentacles, with the suckers turned away from the viewer, and the "neck" would be the tentacle itself. The given dimensions coincide with those of the club of a large squid's tentacle, and even the "cylindrically shaped body" is the right size. In other words, there is nothing in this description that might not refer to Architeuthis.
On October 31, 1983, road workers near Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, spotted an "unidentified animal" swimming offshore. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the animal was being followed by a flock of birds and about two dozen sea lions. One of the workers interviewed said, "There were three bends, like humps, and they rose straight up. Then the head came up to look around." On November 2, surfers reported a "sea serpent" near Costa Mesa, which they described as resembling "a long black eel." One of the surfers (quoted in the Costa Mesa Daily Pilot) said, "There were no dorsal fins. The skin texture wasn't the same as a whale, and when it broke water, it wasn't like a whale at all. I didn't see the head or the tail." From this sketchy information (first reported by J. R. Greenwell in the International Society for Cryptozoology's Newsletter, and then in a Time-Life book called Mysterious Creatures), it is difficult to form an opinion about the nature of this beast--assuming it was the same in both cases--but it is not unreasonable to visualize the elements that were described as being parts of a large squid. It must be pointed out, however, that there has never been a record of Architeuthis washing ashore in California. There is an animal known as the Pacific giant squid (Moroteuthis robustus), which does not get as large as Architeuthis, but can achieve a body and tentacle length of 19 feet (see pages 143-145).
In the conclusion to In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Bernard Heuvelmans wrote,
The legend of the Great Sea-Serpent, then, has arisen by degrees from chance sightings of a series of large sea-animals that are serpentiform in some respect. Some, like the oarfish, the whale-shark and Steller's sea-cow, have been unmasked in the last few centuries. But most remain unknown to science, yet can be defined with some degree of exactitude, depending on the number and precision of the descriptions that refer to them.
He does not mention the giant squid in this passage, but 30-foot tentacles are surely more "serpentiform" than any parts of a whale shark or Steller's sea cow. (He devotes a chapter to "The Kraken and the Giant Squid," but it serves more to introduce the creature and its colorful history than to explain its sea-serpent possibilities.) The giant squid does not explain everything; there are many sightings by reputable persons that cannot be conveniently dumped into a basket woven of squid tentacles.
Even if we assume that the aquatic dinosaurs are gone, and that there are no giant eels, giant snakes, giant seals, or giant otters, we are still left with some "sea serpent" sightings that are difficult to explain. It is perfectly natural for untrained persons to attribute "monster" characteristics to strange creatures seen at sea. In the past, of course, there were no Disney movies, and no Nature programs on PBS; people had to depend upon published descriptions, which, as we have seen, were often wildly exaggerated. Because hardly anybody has ever seen a giant squid, how could they possibly reconcile some strange, many-armed commotion with what David Stead called the "terrible gigantic Calamary"?
The impossibility of proving a negative proposition encourages all true believers to persevere; as long as it cannot be demonstrated that the monsters do not exist--and of course it cannot--they will continue to hope. More than any other creature, real or imaginary, the giant squid fuels the cryptozoological fires. Tales of ship-grabbing monsters are as old as seafaring, but it was not until some still unexplained oceanographic anomaly in the late nineteenth century that specimens of Architeuthis began appearing on the rocky beaches of Newfoundland. Because the giant squid is such an incredible animal, it is actually easier to assume that it is a mythological creature rather than a real one. Its melodramatic appearance in novels such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Beast has supported its delegation to the world of fiction; like the white whale, Architeuthis seems too big and dangerous to be true.
Meet the Author
Richard Ellis is a celebrated authority on marine biology and America’s foremost marine life artist whose work has been exhibited worldwide. His nine books include The Search for the Giant Squid (a Publishers Weekly 1998 Best Book of the Year), Great White Shark, Encyclopedia of the Sea, Men and Whales, Monsters of the Sea, Deep Atlantic The Book of Whales, and Imagining Atlantis.
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