Giant squids – Architeuthis and Mesonychoteuthis, pronounced ar-ke-teu-tus and mez-a-nic-a-teu-tus – symbolise an extraordinary paradox as we move through the beginning of the 21st century. As humankind endeavours to detect signs of life in the solar system and beyond, enormous creatures inhabit our oceans, no living specimens of which have yet been observed by science. Washed up and damaged carcasses are the sole clues as to the natural history of these beasts. There was not even an image of a live giant squid until September 2005, when two Japanese researchers took the first photographs of the creature in its natural habitat. Aptly, they have been tagged as the least-known large animals on earth, and the largest invertebrates in the known universe.
They are the last ‘monsters’ to be conquered. Some 13 metres long, weighing up to 500 kg, with an array of hooks, claws and suction cups, the largest eyes in the animal kingdom and a misplaced parrot beak-like mouth, these giants of the deep are not only monstrous but essentially alien. From the kraken of antiquity, with which they have been identified, to the battles of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to the ‘thing’ in Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere (1987) and the ‘beast’ of Peter Benchley’s 1991 novel of the same name, giant squids have long been represented as terrifying monsters. Little wonder that they now lurk in the nether regions of our subconscious.
The Sri Lanka-based writer Arthur C Clarke was fascinated with giant squids from the time he was a boy, when he saw an illustration in Frank Bullen’s The Cruise of the Cachalot (1899) of a fight between a sperm whale and a squid. This fascination manifested itself in his writings, along with a desire to rouse his readers’ fears of the ‘monster from the depths’. For instance, in his short story ‘The Shining Ones’, Sir Arthur wrote of a Swiss engineer who is contracted to repair a damaged hydro-thermal generator located at a depth of 500 fathoms off the coast of Sri Lanka. The engineer descends in a mini-sub to find that a large section of the generator has been torn away. After repairing the damage he spots two, comparatively small, giant squids communicating with each other – using their light-producing organs, known as photophores, to create images. First he discerns a pattern that resembles a mini-sub, followed by one that looks suspiciously like an enormous squid. It dawns on him that they have summoned Big Brother. The engineer’s last words are: ‘The thing is
The enormous mass
During the second half of the 19th century, little was known about the giant squid – or calamari, as it was often called. The first reliably documented encounter between a ship and a giant squid occurred in 1861, near Tenerife, when the French warship Alecton attacked one with harpoons and guns. A lucky shot hit a vital organ, for the unfortunate creature vomited blood. The crew tried to haul it aboard, but the noose sliced through its soft flesh and the head and tentacles sank.
Sri Lanka is not normally associated with sightings or strandings of giant squid. The island does figure in a dramatic encounter, however, though unfortunately the facts concerning this have never been wholly substantiated. Either way, the corroborated account of the sinking of the schooner, the Pearl, in the Bay of Bengal in 1874 seems plausible. In June of that year, reports about the incident appeared in Indian newspapers, which wrote of the 150-ton schooner having been attacked and dragged under by a giant squid in full view of a passing ship. A few weeks later, on 4 July, a description of the attack was published in the London Times. ‘Our correspondent in Madras has communicated to us the following account of an extraordinary – and sadly fatal – encounter between a ship and a giant cuttlefish in the Bay of Bengal,’ the account began. What followed was testimony from two witnesses, an officer on the Strathowen, a steamer, and the skipper of the schooner, the Pearl, a man named Floyd.
The officer begins, ‘We had left Colombo on the steamer Strathowen, which had rounded Galle, and were well in the bay, our course laid for Madras, steaming over a tranquil sea.’ Soon, however, just before sunset on 10 May, they saw ‘a small schooner lying becalmed’. He continued:
There was nothing in her appearance or position to excite remark, but as we neared, I lazily examined her with my binocular, and then noticed between us, but nearer her, a long, low, swelling lying on the sea, which, from its colour and shape, I took to be a bank of seaweed. As I watched, the mass, hitherto at rest, was set in motion. It struck the schooner, which visibly reeled, and then righted. The mast swayed sideways, and with my glass I could discern the enormous mass and hull of the schooner coalescing – I can think of no other term.
Immediately thereafter, the schooner’s masts began to sway. The officer recalls that, within just a few seconds, it began to sink quickly beneath the waves. Eventually, however, the crew’s energies go into trying to save the survivors. ‘As soon as the poor fellows were able to,’ he recalls, ‘they astounded us with the assertion that their vessel had been submerged by a giant cuttlefish or calamary, the animal which, in a smaller form, attracts as much attention in the Brighton Aquarium as the octopus. Each narrator had his own version, but in the main all the narratives tallied so remarkably as to leave no doubt of the fact.’
In the aftermath of the excitement, and clearly intrigued by the accounts of what had taken place, the offer urged the ship’s skipper to write down his own memories of the events. ‘I am the skipper of the Pearl schooner,’ that account begin, ‘as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas, with a crew of six men.’ He goes on to describe how his ship was bound for Rangoon from Mauritius, to pick up paddy, and had stopped in Galle for water. Three days later, the Pearl had been becalmed in the Bay of Bengal. He continues:
as we lay motionless, a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half-a-mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary. It looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it seemed much longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun. ‘What’s that?’ I sung out to the mate. ‘Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour, and shape, it might be a whale,’ replied Tom Scott; ‘and it ain’t the serpent,’ said one of the crew, ‘for he’s too round for that ‘ere critter.’ I went into the cabin for my rifle, and as I was preparing to fire, Bill Darling, a Newfoundlander, came on deck and, looking at the monster, exclaimed, ‘Have a care, master, that ‘ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.’ Smiling at the idea, I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook; there was a great ripple all round him, and I began to move. ‘Out with all your axes and knives,’ shouted Bill, ‘and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!’
Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way. By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship’s side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous wake or train, that might have been one hundred feet long following it. The brute struck us and the ship quivered under its impact. In another movement, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she keeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming, ‘Slash for your lives’, but all our slashing was in vain, for the brute slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam-ends; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over, I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of the beast’s arms. For a few seconds our ship lay on her beam ends, then filled and went down; another of the crew must have been sucked down, for you only picked up five. The rest you know.
There are two particularly interesting points in this account. First, that there was a Newfoundlander, Bill Darling, among the crew, who recognised the creature to be a giant squid and understood that bullets were ineffectual against such soft flesh – instead, serving merely to enrage. Perhaps Darling had seen a stranded specimen in Newfoundland, which had seen a spate of strandings, or perhaps he had heard seafarers’ tales of an earlier, unrecorded giant squid attack on a ship. When he saw the captain preparing to fire, he protested and warned of the consequences, but Floyd took no notice of the sailor. The second point of interest is Floyd’s remarkable confession that he was unable to give orders to the crew ‘having never seen or heard of such a monster’. In such dire situations, of course, a ship’s captain is expected to act. Instead, Floyd allowed Darling to rally the crew and give the vital order to ‘cut at any part of him that comes aboard’. Such failure of leadership casts doubt on Floyd’s captaincy.
Truer than life?
I had assumed the extraordinary report concerning the Pearl to be true from the time I read it in Arthur C Clarke’s Treasure of the Great Reef (1964). However, while reviewing Richard Ellis’s The Search for the Giant Squid (1998), in which the report was reproduced, I learned that several respected authors had carried out investigations in England only to find no record of the Strathowen in Lloyd’s Register, at the National Maritime Museum, or with shipping lines. Unfortunately, no relevant research can be undertaken in Sri Lanka, as all registers pertaining to the movement of vessels to and from the island’s harbours during British times were dispatched to London. One of the investigators, the marine writer Frank Lane, nevertheless stated with some confidence that the most rational explanation was that the report was of an actual incident. In particular, we drew attention to the presence of a sailor from Newfoundland, ‘where, at the time, giant squids and their behaviour were reasonably well known’.
It is pertinent that Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which features a giant squid attack on the submarine Nautilus, was published in French in 1869. The first English-language translation appeared in 1872 – two years before the Pearl incident. Verne tells how the Nautilus, commanded by the enigmatic Captain Nemo, comes across a group of squid, one of which becomes entangled in the submarine’s propeller. The craft rises to the surface and the hatch is opened to repulse the creature. The crew, like that of the Pearl, battles the creature with axes. Unlike the passive Captain Floyd, though, Captain Nemo is in the forefront of the action:
Immediately one of those arms slid like a serpent down the opening, and many others were above. With one blow of the axe, Captain Nemo cut this formidable tentacle that slid wriggling down the ladder. Two other arms, lashing the air, came down on the seaman placed before Captain Nemo, and lifted him with irresistible power.
What a scene! The unhappy man, seized by the tentacle, and fixed to the suckers, was balanced in the air at the caprice of this enormous trunk … Who could rescue him from that powerful pressure? However, Captain Nemo had rushed to the poulp [squid], and with one blow of his axe had cut through one arm. His lieutenant struggled furiously against other monsters that crept on the flanks of the Nautilus. The crew fought with their axes.
For one instant, I thought the unhappy man, entangled with the poulp, would be torn from the terrible suction. Seven of the eight arms had been cut off. One only wiggled in the air, brandishing the victim like a feather. But just as Captain Nemo and his lieutenant threw themselves on it, the animal ejected a stream of black liquid. We were blinded with it. When the cloud dispersed, the cuttle-fish had disappeared.
It is possible that the newspaper report of the Pearl’s sinking was an opportune hoax in the wake of the publication of Verne’s bestselling book. If it was, the perpetrator missed his vocation, for the report is more convincing, the details more credible and true-to-life than Verne’s tale. Captain Floyd’s failings are the stuff of reality, whereas the macho deeds of Captain Nemo are the imaginings of the storyteller.