There are few monsters left in the world. As our species has explored and settled the planet, the far-flung areas marked “Here Be Dragons” have been charted, and toothy terrors once thought to populate the globe have turned out to be imaginary or merely unfamiliar animals. Yet some elusive creatures have retained their monstrous reputation. Foremost among them is Architeuthis dux—the giant squid.
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The creature—likely the inspiration for the legendary kraken—has been said to have terrorized sailors since antiquity, but its existence has been widely accepted for only about 150 years. Before that, giant squid were identified as sea monsters or viewed as a fanciful part of maritime lore, as in the case of a strange encounter shortly before scientists realized just what was swimming through the ocean deep.
At about 5:00 in the afternoon on August 6, 1848, Capt. Peter M’Quhae was guiding the HMS Daedalus through the waters between the Cape of Good Hope and the island of St. Helena off the African coast when the crew spotted what they described as a gigantic sea serpent. The beast was unlike anything the sailors had seen before. News of the encounter hit the British newspaper The Times two months later, telling of the ship’s brush with a nearly 100-foot monster that possessed a maw “full of large jagged teeth … sufficiently capacious to admit of a tall man standing upright between them.”
M’Quhae, who was asked by the Admiralty to confirm or deny this sensational rumor, replied that the stories were true, and his account was printed a few days later in the same newspaper. Dark on top with a light underbelly, the sinuous, 60-foot creature had slipped by within 100 yards of the boat, and M’Quhae proffered a sketch of the animal made shortly after the sighting.
Precisely what the sailors had actually seen, though, was up for debate. It seemed that almost everyone had an opinion. A letter to The Times signed “F.G.S.” proposed that the animal was a dead ringer for an extinct, long-necked marine reptile called a plesiosaur, fossils of which had been discovered in England just a few decades before by fossil hunter Mary Anning. Other writers to the newspapers suggested the animal might be a full-grown gulper eel or even an adult boa constrictor snake that had taken to the sea.
The notoriously cantankerous anatomist Richard Owen said he knew his answer would “be anything but acceptable to those who prefer the excitement of the imagination to the satisfaction of judgment.” He believed that the sailors had seen nothing more than a very large seal and conferred his doubts that anything worthy of the title “great sea serpent” actually existed. It was more likely “that men should have been deceived by a cursory view of a partly submerged and rapidly moving animal, which might only be strange to themselves.”
M’Quhae objected to Owen’s condescending reply. “I deny the existence of excitement, or the possibility of optical illusion,” he shot back, affirming that the creature was not a seal or any other readily recognizable animal.
As was the case for other sea monster sightings and descriptions going back to Homer’s characterization of the many-tentacled monster Scylla in The Odyssey, attaching M’Quhae’s description to a real animal was an impossible task. Yet a series of subsequent events would raise the possibility that M’Quhae and others had truly been visited by overly large calamari.
The naturalist credited with giving the giant squid its scientific start was Japetus Steenstrup, a Danish zoologist at the University of Copenhagen. By the mid-19th century, people were familiar with various sorts of small squid, such as species of the small and widespread genus Loligo that are often eaten as seafood, and the basics of squid anatomy were well known. Like octopus, squid have eight arms, but they are also equipped with two long feeding tentacles that can be shot out to grasp prey. The head portion of the squid pokes out of a conical, rubbery structure called the mantle, which encloses the internal organs. Inside this squishy anatomy, the squid has two hard parts: a tough internal “pen” that acts as a site for muscle attachment, and a stiff beak that is set in the middle of the squid’s ring of sucker-tipped arms and used to slice prey. Since naturalists were only just beginning to study life in the deep sea, relatively few of the approximately 300 squid species now known had been discovered.
In 1857, Steenstrup combined 17th century reports of sea monsters, tales of many-tentacled giant creatures washed up on European beaches, and one very large squid beak to establish the reality of the giant squid. He called the animal Architeuthis dux. His only physical evidence was the beak, collected from the remains of a stranded specimen that had recently washed ashore. Steenstrup concluded: “From all evidences the stranded animal must thus belong not only to the large, but to the really gigantic cephalopods, whose existence has on the whole been doubted.”