With its untold depths, couldn't the sea keep alive such huge specimens of life from another age, this sea that never changes while the land masses undergo almost continuous alteration? Couldn't the heart of the ocean hide the last–remaining varieties of these titanic species, for whom years are centuries and centuries millennia?”
― Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Hello listeners, and welcome to another episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast! Happy 4th of July if your American! And a very festive annoying colonies day if you are listening from Britain. This week we will be talking about one of my favorite topics, and certainly one of Marie’s, that of the Giant Squid. One of the conditions of my having Marie on this show with me in fact was covering the giant squid topic at some point, and so this episode is something like a sealed deal for this podcast. Although there will be no actual seals in this episode, at least as far as I can imagine having written all of 3 sentences of its contents so far. Seals aside, we will be doing both a full episode and a roundtable on this topic, so lets get into it! This topic was something that was considered a very real danger to the people who traveled the oceans in search of new lands or new opportunities, with the threat of the unknown rising from the murky depths a serious danger to shipping and commerce, travel of persons, and just communication in general. I think this episode is a pretty apropos one for this celebration here in America at least, since around this time I at least get the bug for reading about the 18th century, and so I love to think about and read about the time periods that this particular fear was really significant. And just as a general shout out before I start this episode, if you really want to get in the colonial spirit I absolutely must suggest you take a look at James Townsend and Son on Youtube, with their series 18th century cooking. I guess the page is called Townsends on Youtube. I’ve been watching their videos since this time last year basically, and now having tried some of the recipes myself am completely hooked. One of the best ones to date is the WhitePot bread pudding, which seriously comes out tasting like the best French Toast you’ll ever eat. SO GOOD. And so historical! Anyways, before we start we have some quick housekeeping as per usual.
First I need to thank everyone who entered the “Be A Mad Scientist” Contest this last month! The winners have been notified, and winning packets sent out to them. We will read out their winning entries on the air with next weeks roundtable, and will put their entries up on the website so everyone can take a look. I was blown away by the quality of entries and am so happy to say that I think this contest can become a regular feature of the show. This months question is about going into the past, and convincing everyone that you are a great and powerful Witch or Wizard. If you could go into the past with ONE BACKPACK full of modern day equipment, and you had an introduction with the local leader, be it a queen or king or whatever, to absolutely prove to them that you were magical, what would you do? This is a question I often think about funnily enough, and I think it’s a really fun topic here with a lot of super interesting answers. Anyways, have your entries in before the beginning of August to be considered for some sweet show merchandise and a hand drawn doodle.
This episode we will focus on the lore and science of the Giant Squid of course. And in the Roundtable we will have an exclusive interview with the head Giant Squid Conspiracy Theorist of the ARC, Marie Mayhew, who also happens to be my regular co-host on the roundtables. So prepare the dingy, slap back those slimy tentacles from the ships bow, and cackle wildly at the sea for this weeks episode of the Mad Scientist Podcast.
If you’ve been paying any attention to the news on the giant squid front, or even just sort of watching the nightly news, you’ve probably heard the story of the man whose surfboard was grabbed onto by a giant squid. So this video has been making the rounds recently and its pretty fascinating. The video shows a man on a paddleboard seemingly with a yellow rope around a pretty huge squid, and the squid sort of floating up towards his board and wrapping its tentacles around. The video is sort of short, but the description and explanation for it is pretty wacky. It turns out that the paddleboarder, a man named James Taylor, was floating around or whatever you do on a paddleboard off the coast of Cape Town. He and his friends noticed what appeared to be a very large squid with all kinds of injuries like missing tentacles and wounds and cuts and whatever, that was floating clearly near death and lethargic. Thinking the squid would likely die from its injuries, and not liking to see things die as he has later been quoted as saying, and I’m sure knowing that they are pretty damn rare, he decided to get a rope and tie it around the squid so that he could bring it to shore and allow researchers from a local aquarium or squid emporium to analyze the specimen. So they roped it, and the squid sort of wrapped its tentacles weakly around his paddleboard on their way back to shore, and once on shore he killed it to relieve its suffering I suppose and then called up the local aquarium and stuff. When the aquarium wasn’t available he decided to dissect it on the spot with his friends, all while taking photos and videos to send to the aquarium researchers. Amazingly the evidence they collected was good enough for a definitive identification of the creature as a true Giant Squid, at least according to Taylor and the articles on this available on the web. Supposedly the creature was identified as a male, which can grow to be nearly 33 feet in length, and further investigation of the footage by Dr. Mike Vecchione of the Smithsonian Musem of Natural History Invertebrate Division confirms that it is most likely a male giant squid. Grossly, the reason they know it is a male is because during one of Taylors videos you can see the squid shooting out white wormlike things from its body, which turns out are actually squid sperm. Gross.
Giant squids, often referred to as Krakens in popular culture, have been a really popular mythological creature for nearly as long as we’ve been recording stories about the sea. The word and story of the Kraken comes from ancient Icelandic and Norse stories, passed around by seafarers and travelers moving about near Greenland and Iceland, and the word Kraken literally translates to twisted or crooked in Norwegian. The first accounts of the Kraken come to us like so many accounts of the ancient world from the Greeks and Romans, with Aristotle describing a species of giant squid caught by fisherman, and Pliny the Elder giving specific dimensions of the creature growing to as large as 700 lbs and 30 feet long in the 1st century AD. Interestingly, with the current understanding of the Giant Squid these reports have found true scientific support, with Pliny the Elders comments in particular fitting quite well with our modern recorded sizes for giant squid species. But the really interesting descriptions of this thing as not just an animal but as a monster to be feared come from stories of travelers going through the Greenland Sea, with one of the first written reports coming from the Icelandic saga Orvar-Oddr, and one of the first scientific or at least historically scientific reports coming from the Konungs Skuggsja from 1250. In this work the Kraken is described as follows:
There is a fish that is still unmentioned, which it is scarcely advisable to speak about on account of its size, because it will seem to most people incredible. There are only a very few who can speak upon it clearly, because it is seldom near land nor appears where it may be seen by fishermen, and I suppose there are not many of this sort of fish in the sea. Most often in our tongue we call it hafgufa ("kraken" in e.g. Laurence M. Larson's translation). Nor can I conclusively speak about its length in ells, because the times he has shown before men, he has appeared more like land than like a fish. Neither have I heard that one had been caught or found dead; and it seems to me as though there must be no more than two in the oceans, and I deem that each is unable to reproduce itself, for I believe that they are always the same ones. Then too, neither would it do for other fish if the hafgufa were of such a number as other whales, on account of their vastness, and how much subsistence that they need. It is said to be the nature of these fish that when one shall desire to eat, then it stretches up its neck with a great belching, and following this belching comes forth much food, so that all kinds of fish that are near to hand will come to present location, then will gather together, both small and large, believing they shall obtain their food and good eating; but this great fish lets its mouth stand open the while, and the gap is no less wide than that of a great sound or bight, And nor the fish avoid running together there in their great numbers. But as soon as its stomach and mouth is full, then it locks together its jaws and has the fish all caught and enclosed, that before greedily came there looking for food
Interestingly, the Kraken was described somewhat regularly in the scientific or zoologic literature from the 1200’s until even the 1750’s, with it appearing in the Systema Naturae of 1735 and the Fauna Suecica of 1746, both by Carl Linnaeus. And it was not just researchers from outside of Norway who described this creature, those within the area that the Kraken supposedly lived also made various descriptions of the creature, some of which actually describe it less like a cephalopod or squid and more like a giant crab. For instance, Jacob Wallenberg describes in his work from 1781 that the Kraken was also known as the Crab Fish, and that it lived on the sea floor primarily, digesting its catch over long periods of time. This digestion would invariably lead to excrement and waste, which would then be eaten and used by surrounding fish colonies. It was these fish colonies that supposedly drew fisherman into such close proximity to the Kraken in fact, with the areas with the most plentiful fish thought to be the underwater home of the beast down on the sea floor. Interestingly as well, in this version of the Kraken myth it is the whirlpool caused by the monster coming up and down from the bottom that is most dangerous to those in boats, as opposed to it actually attacking any single ship in particular. At the same time though the legend of the more squid like or at least tentacular Kraken was believed to be responsible for some ship losses even up until the 1800’s, although these versions of events were mostly tabloid fodder as opposed to serious zoological or scientific inquiry as they once were. One of the most popular books on cryptozoology or at least non-mainstream zoology of the time period was by Erik Pontoppidan, whose work The Natural History of Norway argued for the existence of the sea serpent, the Kraken, and mermaids within the oceans surrounding Norway to Greenland. But ultimately, as we became better at navigating the ocean, as communication with ocean vessels became significantly easier, and as just more people started making transatlantic or transpacific voyages the existence of giant sea monsters such as Kraken became less and less likely. One other huge factor in this shift over was in the discovery of actual specimens of giant squid and colossal squids, which started happening in the 1850’s. But the creature didn’t leave the popular culture, and in fact one of the most baddass pieces of Kraken imagery, from the sonnet The Kraken by Alfred Tennyson, wasn’t published until 1830. The sonnet goes like this:
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
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.
Anyways, so the Kraken was already pretty famous, but it probably wouldn’t of held such a huge sway on our cultural consciousness with the description of the true giant squids and colossal squids, had it not been included in such works as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in 1851, or in 20,000 leagues under the sea by Jules Verne, published in 1870, in which its depicted as a giant squid or cephalopod in general. And then of course there are the works in the Cthulu Mythos, where the aforementioned Godmonster of the deep is considered to be a thing with a monstrous squid for a face basically. If your particular interested in the works of Lovecraftian Horror, I would point you to the Peoples Guide to the Cthulu Mythos, a really great Dark Myths show published by our friend D.B. Spitzer. Modern day sightings of the Kraken or Giant Sea Serpents are few and far between as you can imagine, although you do get the odd sightings once in a while for a huge sea monster. For instance, in 2016 there was a sort of funny period of time where my Mom kept forwarding me stories about the Giant Squid people had photographed on Google Earth, which was 120 meters long. And people to this day online claim the thing was real, and that the Kraken is out there. Despite the fact that like, it was almost immediately proven to be a well-known rock outcropping known as Sail Rock.
Alright, so the Kraken almost certainly doesn’t exist, although to be fair we haven’t mapped out or explored even half of the oceans total volume at this point in time, so who knows, maybe there is a colony of them sitting on the bottom feeding massive fish colonies with their bowel movements. And if we don’t kill them off with plastic or oil spills or pharmaceutical runoff or rapidly rising ocean temperature or algae blooms or just sheer nuclear apocalypse by the time we have the technology to explore the entire ocean we may just get to see one. But there are real giant squids and colossal squid out there, and their discovery like I said earlier probably had a lot to do with our relatively quite sea monster front today. So first off, what are giant squid and what are colossal squid?
The Giant Squid, a species of squid within the genus Architeuthis, was first scientifically classified by Steenstrup in 1857, after writing a number of scientific studies on the creatures throughout the 1850s. This coincided with the finding of pieces of giant squid and sometimes nearly whole specimens that washed ashore in Newfoundland through the 1850’s to early 1900’s, although of course with the technology of the time these specimens were pretty quickly degraded to being useless for further study. It wasn’t until 2004 that a really well preserved intact specimen could be claimed, with a giant squid caught by a fishing boat off the Falkland Islands being transported to the Darwin Center of the London Natural History Museum. Today there are nearly 700 giant squid specimens in scientific collections around the world, with 30 actually shown in museums or aquariums, which is pretty amazing honestly. But throughout all of this time in trying to find a giant squid the specimens were often found either in the stomachs of washed up Sperm Whales or as degraded pieces that float to shore, something that likely made the story of truly massive giant squid seem even more likely to people in the past. It wasn’t until relatively recently that these things were photographed or videotaped though, and studying of live specimens is still extremely difficult. The first photographs of the Giant Squid were taken in 2004 and Japanese Zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera obtained the first video of the species in 2006. Mr. Kubodera is also famous for taking the first video of a giant squid in its natural habitat, which he did with a National Geographic documentary crew in tow in 2012.
What makes studying Giant Squid so difficult is their natural habitat, which we frankly don’t even know for certain, but which we suspect is between 300 and 1000 meters deep. Although it isn’t confined to one particular ocean, its this depth and also the relative lack of our knowledge about when they appear and what their behavior is generally that makes catching them on film so difficult. Some researchers have attempted to follow Sperm Whales, one of the few animals known to predate on adult giant squids, although again just imagine how comically difficult that must be given our current undersea technology. Ultimately the team led by Mr. Kubodera found success by mimicking the bioluminescence of squid that the giant squid feeds on, as well as providing smaller squid species as bait. But again, just the cost alone of getting to this depth for extended periods is quite prohibitive. For example, the cost for James Cameron to get down to the Marianas Trench was around 8 million dollars, and took like 2 and a half hours one way, a depth of around 11,000 meters or for my non scientist American listeners about 36,000 feet. So yea, all things considered more than a poor zoologist or even a relatively rich zoology department can afford most likely. In fact research dollars for ocean exploration are around 23.7 Million dollars, with NASAs budget just for space exploration coming in at 3.8 billion dollars, and the ocean is a hell of a lot closer. It’s been estimated that we’ve only explored around 5% of the total volume of the ocean, so theres still a lot out there to explore, and although I’m sure a lot of my listeners would argue that space may yield a lot more interesting finds, and that the ability to travel in space may yield similar openings in ocean travel, its still pretty crazy to see the stark difference in funding.
Ok, so the giant squid is freaking impossible to study, but what we have found out is pretty amazing. Like other squids, they are composed of a mantle, arms, and tentacles. The mantle is the head potion, which has a beak in it and the very complex nervous system. The arms are the shorter squiggly bits and the tentacles are the longer ones here, and in terms of total length it is the tentacles that really make this thing so long. The giant squid is second only to the colossal squid in terms of length and mass, which we will get too, growing to around 13 meters or 43 feet for females and 10 meters or 33 feet for males from mantle to tip of the longest tentacles. These things can be pretty damn big, and they can grow to sizes of around 600 lbs for the females and about 330 lbs for the males. The giant squid has massive eyeballs as well, nearly the size of 27 cm or 11 inches in diameter, allowing them to see bioluminescence in the deep sea. Each tentacle and arm is lined with circular suckers, with sharp teeth made up chitin along the outer circumference of the suckers. Like other squids they propel themselves forward using a water jet, and shoot ink if provoked although with giant arms full of sucking teeth lined circles who would want to mess with a giant squid. So they are big, and freaky, but not particularly commonly found with humans. It’s likely that these creatures never attacked humans in the past, certainly not sucking down entire ships into the murky depths. Sorry Marie!
Now, the largest squid we know of to date is the Colossal Squid, also known as the Antarctic Squid. This thing is even rarer than the Giant Squid, growing to an estimated size of 46 feet long or 14 meters and masses of 1650 lbs or 750 kg. Only a very small number of colossal squid have ever been found, with the first reported specimen found in 1925 as remains within a Sperm Whale. The largest colossal squid ever found was discovered in 2007, when Fisherman off the coast of Antarctica in the Ross Sea caught one by accident while fishing. When they couldn’t get it to let go of their catch they figured they would catch it, and thankfully had the foresight to freeze it after bringing it aboard. The specimen is pretty much the source for the majority of our knowledge about colossal squid, and it along with other specimens caught in the Antarctic seas have allowed us to make estimates of its maximum size. But again, less than 50 specimens of this thing seem to have ever been caught, so what we know about these things is pretty limited. One interesting fact though is that while the Giant Squid may have sharp teeth lined suckers on their tentacles and arms, the colossal squid has the teeth, the suckers, and rotating hook like sharp teeth as well, so just another layer of terror for your deep sea dive. Honestly I’m pretty excited to see what other discoveries are made on this species in the future, and with our ability to go deeper into the sea for longer periods of time moving ever forward I hope they happen within my lifetime.
So, what is it about the giant squid that is so terrifying and mystifying? What are some of the best myths and stories out there about this creature, and what can it tell us about modern myths about travel, giant serpents, and other scary stuff in the dark places of the universe? Well, since this is a favorite topic of Marie’s, we decided to do a roundtable on this topic, and we’re hoping we will get one of our fellow podcast researchers here on the air along with us. It’s going to be great, and I hope you come along for the ride. Before we finish this episode though, I wanted to leave you with a pretty amazing Amazon review left on a book about the giant squid, titled The Search for the Giant Squid: the Biology and Mythology of the Worlds most Elusive Sea Creature. It’s the sort of review that wonderful screenplays are made of, and was rated as “Helpful to me” by this podcast host. It goes as follows:
I have been intrigued for many years by the giant squid. (I love calamari and I make a marinated squid dish that is truly terrific.) So, when I read this book and realized how little marine biologists really know about the giant squid (and even little squids it seems), I was a bit disappointed. I was also disappointed to learn that they rarely if ever show up in the northwest waters of the U.S. The book is about as well written as it could be about a subject of which so little is known. But at least I now know as much about the creature as anyone else. Great cocktail conversation, eh?!?
And with that, thank you again for listening to the Mad Scientist Podcast. I am your host Chris Cogswell, and I will be back next week with a Roundtable going even further in depth on the Kraken, and all other sorts of Giant Cephalopods! If you like the show please consider supporting us on Patreon, giving us a review on I-tunes or Audioboom, or just telling your friends and family about the show. Thank you again for making this show possible.