An Essay by Jenevieve Carlyn Hughes
The sea is everything…
– Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
When I was growing up, Sunday evenings were spent watching The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which aired at 6 p.m. on public television. From aboard his ship, the Calypso, Cousteau would dive deep below the ocean’s surface to explore the wonders of shipwrecks, sunken caves, and sea creatures. He shared his fascination with marine life large and small, from the colorful and prickly sea anemone to what he described as “the soft intelligence” of the giant squid. Cousteau’s work shaped the future of marine biology and fostered broad public interest in the earth’s oceans, but it was not until decades later that the first living giant squid was photographed in the wild.
As a child, I remember visiting the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, where an enormous replica of a giant squid was suspended from the vaulted sandstone ceiling inside the museum’s entrance. In scale, it is similar to the massive model of a blue whale that hangs in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The squid is a subtle shade of coral, bathed in light from the arched windows of the three-story French gothic building. The Peabody Museum was built in the 1920s to house collections of fossils, gemstones, and other artifacts acquired by scientists since the mid-1800s. Nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of Evolution,” it remains a cathedral of science.
The replica squid was based on an actual giant squid that had turned up dead in a fishing net in Newfoundland, Canada, in the 1960s, after attempting to wrap its tentacles around a small craft vessel—leaving its impression, literally, on the fishing boat. Long after the era when natural history specimens were bought and sold as curiosities, the Newfoundland squid was acquired for research purposes, making its way to New Haven where it became the model for the Peabody Museum’s replica squid. Somehow, the artist who created the replica was able to convey the squid’s deeper essence: its eyes soulful, its tentacles expressive. Although the museum is now a global research institution, the replica still suffuses the space with the feel of a natural history museum from the Romantic Era of science.
During a grade-school fieldtrip, I also visited the USS Nautilus museum, where we climbed aboard a decommissioned submarine. The ship sits docked in a river that empties into the Long Island Sound, which eventually connects to the Atlantic Ocean. After descending an iron ladder to explore the vessel’s cramped quarters, we were invited to imagine being attacked by a giant squid, just like Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. As we peered through the tiny submarine portals into the murky water, I recalled a children’s storybook version of Jules Verne’s classic novel. It contained a pen-and-ink illustration of a giant squid engulfing Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus.
The notion that a giant squid would attack a ship was frightening, even horrifying. Moreover, Nemo’s nemesis was nothing like the squid that I’d seen floating above my head at the entrance to the Peabody Museum. For a time, after my imaginary encounter with a squid aboard the USS Nautilus, I managed to convince myself that giant squid were alive only in the realm of science fiction. Contained safely to seafaring mythology. Relegated to storybook depictions of squid swallowing ships whole.
For centuries, the giant squid has been demonized as a monster in seafaring myths and legends. Called “the Kraken” by sailors who tried to hunt it and often failed, it was frequently depicted in art and literature engulfing wooden ships with its eight arms and two extra-long tentacles. Until the nineteenth century, the existence of the giant squid was doubted by scientists. For most of human history, it remained a mythological leviathan. Today, it is one of the most sought-after creatures of the deep.
Although the giant squid (scientific name: Architeuthis dux) usually grows up to 30-40 feet, or the length of a school bus, the largest ever recorded reached 60 feet long. Larger still is the colossal squid, found in the waters off of Antarctica, too remote for most sailing vessels prior to recent history. Giant squid prefer the earth’s warmer waters. Using their own bioluminescent abilities to hunt and to communicate, they will migrate throughout the oceans to find a place where they can thrive.
The giant squid has only one natural predator: the sperm whale. Beaks of giant squid (yes, squid have beaks) by the thousands have been found in the bellies of sperm whales, along with plastic bottles and other signs of human activity. This is a testament to how polluted the oceans have become. Yet, it also reveals that even giant squid are vulnerable to predation. Despite their immense size, they are not the most powerful creatures in the sea.
Over the years, giant squid have come to fascinate marine scientists, precisely because they are so elusive. With a complex central nervous system and brain that extends into each of its arms and tentacles, a giant squid can camouflage almost instantly with its surroundings. Classified in the phylum Mollusca, giant squid are grouped with other soft-bodied marine creatures, including scallops and sea snails on the entirely opposite end of the size spectrum. Within Mollusca, squid are part of the class of Cephalopoda, which also includes various types of highly intelligent octopuses.
Until the early 21st century, no living giant squid had yet been photographed in the wild. After years of concerted efforts and close-but-not-quite encounters, a research team in 2004 spent months aboard a ship in the Ogasawara Islands of the North Pacific attempting to catch a glimpse of a giant squid. More than glimpse it, they sought to photograph a giant squid in its natural habitat, in the wild. Research grants were obtained, preparations were made, and entire careers were dedicated to this endeavor. What followed can perhaps best be described as a gripping tale of incredible suction on the high seas.
Attracted by the bait that had been tethered to the marine scientists’ ship and lowered deep below the surface of the sea, a giant squid eventually swam close to where the research team was stationed. Using a bright yellow underwater camera, at long last it seemed that photographic footage of a giant squid would finally be obtained. The creature in its natural habitat, in the wild, would be captured on camera for the first time in history.
However, an arduous struggle ensued when the research team sought to reel in its equipment, which had become ensnared in one of the squid’s tentacles. The creature had suctioned its tentacle so thoroughly onto the lure that when the scientists tried to haul in their equipment, a large part of the squid’s tentacle came with it.
The squid sank back into the deep. The bright yellow submersible camera, which remained intact, had managed to capture a series of digital photographs more up-close and personal than anyone could have anticipated. Ultimately, however, the researchers were left standing on the deck of the ship holding a piece of tentacle from the very creature they had devoted themselves to study.
Like starfish, a giant squid can eventually regenerate a missing limb, although not without great effort. Meanwhile, because of the complex system of nerves that extends throughout the length of a squid’s arms and tentacles, a severed limb will retain its suctioning abilities. Thus, after the scientists pried the tentacle off of the camera, it suctioned itself onto the scientists. And then it gripped the deck of the ship, like a newborn child grasping the thumb of its mother.
DNA testing later confirmed that the eighteen-foot long piece of tentacle was indeed from Architeuthis dux—a giant squid.
In the years since that fateful expedition, giant squid and other cephalopods have gained legions of new fans and admirers, fascinated by the myths, the history, and the science. Beyond photographs, there now exists digital video footage of more than one giant squid in the wild, recorded during subsequent expeditions and offering a dynamic glimpse into their deep-sea lives. A giant squid’s movements and overall gestalt come across through video footage in ways that photographic images simply cannot capture.
In 2019, a juvenile giant squid was identified by marine scientists in the Gulf of Mexico, 250 miles off the coast of Florida. The first living giant squid to be filmed in U.S. waters, it was drawn towards a newer submersible camera, the Medusa, which quietly simulates underwater bioluminescence like a jellyfish glowing in the dark. Although jellyfish are not a food source for giant squids, a jellyfish will light up, as a last resort, when it is trying to escape from one of its own predators. This, in turn, alerts even larger animals (such as giant squid) that a potential food source is nearby, in the hopes that they will eat whatever is threatening the jellyfish. For a jellyfish under duress, bioluminescence is a Hail Mary pass—a last-ditch effort to seek help from a giant squid.
Because the newer submersible camera, the Medusa, is able to effectively mimic a jellyfish’s bioluminescence, there will likely be more videos of giant squid in the future. Still, the deep sea can be a harsh reminder of the laws of nature and life in the wild. The giant squid is no longer viewed by most people as a monster, but rather as a complex wild animal that humans are still learning about. Although giant squid might seem like otherworldly creatures, embodying the mysteries of the deep, their shifting migration patterns could start to draw them closer to shore. As the world’s oceans continue to warm, these creatures might begin turning up in places that they hadn’t before.
Soon, a giant squid could even be as near to you or to me as a bottle of H2O. Recently, researchers have been working to manufacture an eco-friendly, biodegradable form of “plastic” from the proteins found in the tentacles of giant squid. By harnessing the tentacles’ intense suctioning ability, this breakthrough could have numerous applications, from biodegradable bottles to textiles to timed-release capsules for medicines. Since the proteins can now be synthesized in a laboratory, this process will not require further harvesting of squid. It may lead to a decrease in the amount of toxic plastic being produced, and less plastic pollution ending up in the earth’s oceans. If so, the giant squid’s natural habitat would stay a little more wild.
One day, you might find yourself sipping from a biodegradable water bottle created from the proteins found in squid tentacles. When that day comes, savor each sip. Imagine what else might be possible for this world. And then remember the story of that one giant squid who just wouldn’t let go.
Jenevieve Carlyn Hughes lives near the coastal coves & salt marshes of Long Island Sound, and she explores the environmental humanities through her writing. Her work has appeared in Typishly, the Connecticut River Review, Reliving History Magazine, Northern New England Review, Autumn Sky Poetry, Braided Way Magazine, Rue Scribe, Caria, Trouvaille Review, Amethyst Review, and elsewhere. She teaches humanities for Southern New Hampshire University’s global campus.
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I never could imagine that giant squid could be so interesting. It was such a pleasure to read this essay and find out about a sea creature that hardly crosses one’s mind. And the research being conducted in creating biodegradable plastic from the squid’s tentacle is fascinating. This was so entertaining and informative. 🙂