Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling FearS

Why do we fear the giant squid? Brian Lam of ocean blog The Scuttlefish gets to the dark heart of kraken horror.

In 1965, a Soviet Whaler watched an adult squid and sperm whale battle one another, but neither was victorious. The whale was found strangled, and the severed head of the squid was found in the whale's stomach.If this is true, it is remarkable, for very few prey can injure their hunters to the point of death.

As the second largest mollusk, and the second largest invertebrate on the planet, the Giant Squid (Genus Architeuthis) comes with the largest reputation ahead of even that of the later discovered and larger colossal squid.

Like all squid, the giant variety have eight arms, two longer tentacles, and a mantle. The arms and tentacles are what give the giant squid its length, and what lead to exaggerations of its actual size. The insides of the arms and tentacles, are lined with hundreds of suction cups, all perforated with finely serrated teeth. Like most smaller squid, it propels itself by means of ejecting water from a chamber in a rhythmic fashion, causing jet-like propulsion. Given its size, it has few enemies, but one that is worthy.

Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling FearS

Sperm whales are often found with scars telling of entanglements with Giant Squid. They are known to eat the cephalopods with regularity.

But undigested beaks of Giant Squid found within the stomachs of whales have predominantly been juvenile. Not surprisingly, these epic creatures are of such size that they are each other's only natural enemies, other than man, who hunts them for research, not food. (The giant squid manage buoyancy by use of ammonium, a solution lighter than water. This chemical, related to ammonia, gives them a bitter flavor when eaten, said Bruce Robison, a Monterey-based scientist who chomped on a tentacle once after his quarry fled his line, leaving him only with a tentacle.)

We know it through stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in others where it is known as a Kraken–a terrifying, elusive monster that attacked ships, battled whales, caused cap-sizing whirlpools, and all without fully emerging from the depths of the dark ocean. The Kraken dwelled in the waters off Norway, even though the word is German in origin, meaning, "Octopus". Naturally.

A sonnet by Alfred Tennyson appeared in Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, in 1830, page 154.

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
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms 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.

I prefer BadAssOfTheWeek‘s description:

What's worse than having your ass chomped in half by two rows of serrated, dagger-sized shark teeth, you might ask? How about getting a singing molest-o-gram from a half-dozen gigantor rubbery tentacles that bludgeon your brain apart while simultaneously tearing your ship into jetsam, leaving you either dead, retarded, or stranded in the middle of the ocean with no hope of salvation? While that's pretty much one of the worst things ever, to the Kraken it's just the way he enjoys spending his lazy Sunday afternoons.

Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling Fear

The Kraken, as it appeared in Verne's 20,000, was supposedly the basis for H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, an octopus-headed god. And in Clash of the Titans, the Kraken was represented by a giant humanoid with a fishtail, which Perseus kills with Medusa's severed head, still capable of turning beings to stone. The Kraken also takes down a ship in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest as a hunter of the cursed. But let us not forget the real giant squid.

Indeed part of its reputation is built upon its elusiveness. Giant squid have never been caught and kept alive; The only specimens found to prove its existence were washed ashore, dead, or found mostly-digested inside the bellies of sperm whales. Whole bodies, being difficult to find even dead, are rare enough that in 2005 the Melbourne Aquarium paid $90k for a specimen frozen in ice, captured by New Zealand fishermen.


Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling FearS

But with the advent of underwater cameras, robots, and crittercams, we have found photos and videos of live specimens. Here's the first, according to Steve O'Shea, squid exert, found in 2002. O'Shea says they hauled the body to rock pools near the shoreline, but the squid is indeed alive, even if only at 2 meters long.

Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling FearS

Later, specimens in better shape, having been hauled straight from the sea, were found by a team of researchers in Japan 600 miles south east of Tokyo near the island of Chichijima using a small line baited with squid and shrimp. (Squid have been known to be cannibalistic.) They dropped the line 3,000 feet in an area specifically known as a sperm whale feeding ground.

Kraken of the Sea and of Our Trembling FearS

This was 2004. The same team, lead by Tsunemi Kubodera (National Science Museum of Japan) and Kyoichi Mori (Ogasawara Whale Watching Association) captured video a year later.

The 3-meter giant squid in the video isn't very giant, since the creatures can grow up to 13 meters in length. Steve O'Shea, the researcher who is attempting to capture live giant squid, is taking the approach of capturing juveniles to an extreme. He's been searching for them as inch-long specimens, of which there are far greater in the sea since their numbers dwindle before they can reach maturity.

He was the subject of a New Yorker profile, where he unsuccessfully hunts the creatures in front of the reporter. But he does move research forward, discovering little things that could keep the animals alive in captivity, including facts like certain plastics and rectangular tanks are deadly to the creatures, who can only thrive in cylinder shaped enclosures. O'Shea seems mad with the quest, a quest which seems foolish until completed, like many great endeavors with no financial ends. But his strategy seems smart. After all, you have to wonder at how sane it is to try to capture a creature that outweighs you by several times, with several times as many arms, and a beak that in lesser species has been known to bite through kevlar, a material 20 times harder than steel.

This post originally appeared on The Scuttlefish.