‘‘‘I don’t mean to panic anyone, but I’m afraid the calamari has been infested with baby squid.’‘Dick’; 3rd Rock from the Sun. 1999
Last week an unusual creature washed up the beach at Kommetjie, fascinating all who came across it. It’s body’s large size and mass, combined with its eight arms (or legs, depending on your viewpoint) and long twin-tentacles identified it as a giant squid, and this is a sea-creature more common to the worlds of fantasy than on a Cape beach. Myths surround these deep-water creatures, and most readers of maritime history and lore will have seen pictures of giant squid locked in battle with huge whales, or fanciful drawings of tentacles dragging wooden sailing ships to Davy Jones locker, with panicked matelots leaping into the sea from all sides.
The truth is a little more prosaic, but giant squid still remain fascinating creatures, and have been catching the eyes of humans for millennia. Aristotle, writing in the 4th century BCE, described the ‘so-called large teuthes, the biggest of the calamaries’ (about which more later), a squid ‘five ells long’. The ell as a measurement was never clearly defined, but we can safely say that Aristotle’s squid body was over five metres in length. Long enough to give one of histories greatest philosophers pause for thought, at least. Gaius Plinius Secundus, aka Pliny the Elder, author of the first encyclopaedia – the Naturalis Historia of the 1st Century – wrote of a 320 kg squid with arms 9 metres long. The head, he said, was a big as a cask.
Mariners have observed these creatures over the centuries, and can be forgiven for odd exaggeration. The Norse legend of the Kraken is more than likely based on sightings of giant squid, but it’s unlikely that there ever existed ‘a sea monster as large as an island capable of engulfing and sinking any ship.’ Also probably based on giant squid sightings are the monsters Lusca of the Caribbean – half dragon and half octopus for those with an imaginative bent – and Scylla from the Straits of Messina, whose description deserves to be quoted in full: ‘a frightful monster with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark’s teeth. Her body consisted of twelve tentacle-like legs and a cat’s tail, while six dog’s heads ringed her waist.’ (Wary sailors could, of course, take the other side of the Strait, and be gobbled up by Charybdis, a living whirlpool; a choice of fates far more scary than the contemporary ‘between a rock and a hard place’.)
Sightings over the centuries have become more verifiable as giant squid have been variously washed up or caught by trawlers, and we are far more capable of estimating their potential size and eating habits. Speaking of eating habits, giant squid are a favourite grub of sperm whales, and while there has been some evidence of sucker marks on captured whales, the result is pretty much inevitable: the whale wins in a heavyweight underwater bout. Interestingly, there have only been about 700 verified giant squid carcass specimens studied over the centuries, which may seem a lot, but it’d certainly not enough for biologists to give accurate potential weights and measurements. Who knows what lies beneath? Current best estimates for average size are around 2 metres to 5 metres in length on average (excluding the long tentacles, which can extend to 10 metres), but there have been squid measured to 13 metres in overall length.
Giant squid appear to be more fond of colder water environments, but they are present in most of the oceans around the planet near continental and island slopes. Not much data is recorded about their ‘vertical ability’, but what is known suggests that they operate most comfortably at depths between 300 and 1000 metres, in much the same range as their predator whales. Like all squid, they comprise a mantle, eight arms and the two longer tentacles, which are lined (like octopi) with hundreds of suction cups, ranging from 2 to 5cm in diameter. At the end of their tentacles are the ‘tentacular club’, which is intriguingly divided into ‘wrist, hand and finger’, and has dense clusters of suction cups. They have parrot-like beaks: their arms and tentacles surround this ‘mouth’, and the tentacles drag prey to the beak which shreds it. Giant squid are jet-propelled: they pull water into the mantle cavity, and push it through a ‘syphon’ like a jet ski; there are small fins at the base of the mantle – much like a jet – that guide it in the desired direction. Their intricate nervous systems and complex brains have excited scientists, and giant squid also have the biggest eyes of any creature on the planet; 27 cm in diameter with a 9 cm pupil – useful for seeing bioluminescent light at depths, catching the source and eating it.
The comments on social media that accompanied the discovery of the Kommetjie specimen were peppered with references to ‘calamari’. Squid aren’t calamari, in the same sense that cows aren’t steaks. Calamari is the culinary name for all forms of squid, so it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come across a hungry calamari as you step into the sea. The name comes from the Latin calamarius, ‘pertaining to a writing-reed’, and simply references the ink-sac that all squid carry for squirting out camouflaging clouds when under attack. Not much use, we reckon, against a sperm whale.
One thing is reasonably certain: on a Waterfront Charters Ocean Safari you are unlikely to spot a giant squid. You will, however, get to see a plethora of other amazing ocean creatures from whales to penguins, dolphins to sunfish and a wide variety of seabirds. In fact, any Waterfront Charters cruise is the perfect way to get in touch with the magical ocean and its amazing inhabitants. Book a cruise online soon!