Saturday, 1 October 2016

Really Gigantic Squid? 2. The Big Ones That Got Away.

     In Part 1 we learned that giant squid continue to grow more or less steadily throughout life, with about 6 per cent exceeding 50 feet in length, and that there is good reason to believe that some of them, not yet recorded by science, make it to 66 feet. But what do we make of the claims that rare individuals reach 100 feet in length, if not even longer?

     We might as well start with THE BIG ONE. Pierre Denys de Montfort was the first scientist to take the giant squid seriously, and in 1802 the second volume of his opus, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, des Mollusques (Natural history, general and particular, of the Mollusks) which can now be read online in its entirety, thanks to Google Books and Archive. After 112 pages of erudite scientific prose on squid, followed by an even longer section on octopuses, page 256 introduces us to the topic which will dominate the final two fifths of the book: "Le Poulpe Colossal" or colossal octopus. And on the facing pace stands the picture which made him a laughing stock, and ultimately ruined his life.
    Page 271 provides the background, which can be translated thus:
One can see, at Saint-Malo, in the chapel of Saint Thomas, the saint whom the seamen of this country invoke when in extreme danger, an ex voto or picture, which represents the imminent danger, which almost caused the destruction of a ship of this port, anchored on the coast of Angola, where it was involved in trade, that is to say, in the commerce of the blacks, that of ivory and gold dust.
    Suddenly, this gigantic monster rose out of the water, extending its great arms up to the tops of the masts. Praying to St Thomas in their despair, the sailors managed to hack off the tentacles with their axes and sabres. On returning to their home port, they rushed over to the chapel to give thanks, without even greeting their wives, and commissioned a painting of the event. There is a full translation here, in Heuvelmans's later book. (Keep this link open; it will be useful.)
     Now, if we are going to take this seriously, then it should be obvious that the painting was done by someone who wasn't there. Also, the fact that no names or dates are mentioned suggests that the back story was simply a tradition of the chapel, which may have gained or lost something in transmission. Indeed, the absence of this information is telling, for ex voto works of this nature normally come with a written dedication.
     That, of course, assumes that the painting actually exists, or did exist. In a footnote on the same page of the above link, Heuvelmans describes his failed attempts to locate it. He heard that it was destroyed during the bombing in 1940. However, back in 1891 an enquiry failed to locate even St Thomas' Chapel, let alone the painting. Rumour had it that it really existed in Marseille, and in 1867 it was claimed to exist in the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, but that the incident occurred off the coast of South Carolina. But Heuvelmans still couldn't find it.
     Personally, I don't believe de Montfort made it up. There would not be much point in writing two and a half books of detailed scientific material, only to then insert an outrageous hoax. If he did, it would not have been wise to direct attention to a port in Normandy easily accessible to enquiring doubters. At the same time, however, I don't think he ever went to Saint Malo and saw the picture for himself. I suspect he was shown what was presented as a copy, and accepted the story uncritically. He was remiss in not providing a proper citation.
     I note on page 279 his book de Montfort claimed that Grandpré, the author of Voyage en Afrique, assured him of the existence of those huge "octopuses" in that area, and also cited the Saint-Malo ex voto. Had he been the one who showed a copy to him? Grandpré also assured him that the natives of the area dreaded the beast, because of its tendency to drag their dugout canoes to the bottom. Strange, isn't it, that they don't appear to suffer from this worry today?
   You will also occasionally discover (for example, in Ellis' book) the assertion that this drawing was one of de Montfort's illustrations. It wasn't. I don't know where it comes from.
    But to continue. At the time, with the French whaling industry having died out, Dunkirk had become the home of foreign whalers. De Montfort therefore hastened to the city to question them fully. We must assume that word quickly spread throughout this small community that a scholar, a toff, one of the eggheads from the mysterious planet Academia, was paying a visit - and without bearing the obligatory grains of salt.
     An elderly Danish captain, Jean-Magnus Dens related how, when he had been becalmed some distance off West Africa at about 15°, he lowered some planks over the side in order for his sailors to scrape the side clean. Suddenly, an anckertroll (anchor troll) reached out and with a single arm dragged two of the men under. The third scrambled up the rigging, followed by a huge tentacle, which wrapped itself around the shrouds. The crew managed to cut off the tentacle, and pierce the monster's body with five harpoons, but it nevertheless escaped. The man in the shroud fainted, and died that night in a delirium.
     The severed appendage ended in a sharp point, and was nearly as thick at the bottom as a mizzen-mast, while its suckers were the size of ladles. Its length was 25 feet, and considering that the owner's head had never appeared above water, he reckoned the complete length must have been 35 or 40 feet. Its shape and thickness clearly identifies it as one of the eight arms rather than a long tentacle, and even if 10 feet were cut off for exaggeration, that still makes it bigger than any other specimen.
     Admittedly, this story is not as dramatic as the Saint-Malo incident, but I note that it allegedly happened in a similar area, and I wonder if the old sea dog was not relating in the first person an earlier version of the Saint-Malo legend.
     In 1870 Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea popularised the giant squid (which he also called an octopus), and four years later there came a report of how a giant squid had attacked and capsized a 150-ton schooner, the Pearl, whose crew were rescued by the Strathowen. Heuvelmans was unable to find the Strathhowen listed on the Lloyd's Register for that year, and he smelled a hoax. So do I.
     But to get back to Capt. Dens' anchor troll, in judging its plausibility, it is relevant to examine the experience of the survivors of the S.S. Britannia, which was sunk on 25 March 1941. Twelve men were on a raft so small that they had to take turns hanging over the side, which was always under 18 inches of water. According to an often repeated account, a squid dragged one of them under, and later a tentacle seized 2nd Lt. R.E.G. Cox, but released him, the hooked rims of the suckers leaving raw, bleeding sores the size of a penny. However, the earliest report of this incident, in the Illustrated London News of 1st November 1941, based on Cox's own testimony, has it differently. Lieutenant Cox was stung on the neck, hand, mouth, and head by a Portuguese man-of-war, and suffered excruciating agony, while on the fifth day an Indian servant had his legs taken off by a shark, "and then, to add to the horror, a huge manta, or devil-fish, seized his body, folded its great fins round the victim, and devoured him". This last statement is physically impossible. Manta rays are filter feeders of plankton.
     Just the same, it appears that Cox told the traditional story to the zoologist, Dr John Cloudsley-Thompson, and showed him his scars two years after the event. Mark K. Bayless said that he himself met Cloudsley-Thompson, and the latter told him of his own interview with Cox.
“I met him at the Royal Armored Corps firing range at Homsey, Yorkshire, whilst I was an instructor in Tank Gunnery at Sandhurst in 1943 while recovering from a severe wound received at the Knights bridge tank battle in Libya, 1942. He told cause [sic] he was always playing pranks. So he showed me a spread [newspaper clipping] from the Illustrated London News" [Nov. 1, 1941] to prove it! He also showed me scars on his leg which were about the size of an English penny in those days, and rings about six inches apart.”
     An interview on the subject by Prof. Cloudsley-Thompson can also be seen on this video.
     Such scars are certainly not consistent with a Portuguese man-of-war (Physalia), but are consistent with the suckers of a squid. Squid use their long tentacles to lash out and grab their prey with the suckers on the terminal club. The 22-foot squid in the Queensland Museum, which I recently examined, has suckers just the right size. It is therefore theoretically possible that a similarly sized squid seized Lt. Cox's leg in this manner, only to release it when it found he could not be moved. (I might add such a squid could not possibly consume a whole man; a human being would be just as big as its own body.)
     Whether, of course, a squid has the muscular strength to raise its limbs completely out of the water, as per Capt. Dens' anchor troll, is still a moot point.

      Heuvelmans claimed that the length of a squid's head and body is a hundred times the diameter of the largest sucker, plus or minus ten percent. This is probably true for the suckers on the arms, but those on the terminal club of the tentacles are twice as large - which is not surprising, considering they are the ones used in prey capture.
     Not surprisingly, sperm whales generally bear scars produced by such suckers, scars an inch across, like those on Lt. Cox's leg being not uncommon. However, the cetologist, L. Harrison Matthews, who examined 81 male sperm whales and 14 females, wrote in 1938:
Nearly all the male Sperm whales carry scars caused by the suckers and claws of large squids, scars caused by suckers up to 10 cm in diameter being common.
     10 cm equal 4 inches. If we attribute them to a tentacular club rather than an arm, that still implies something as big as the largest of the Newfoundland specimens. Or is it? Heuvelmans rejects the theory that they were inflicted when the whale was young and grew on the reasonable grounds that they are rare on female whales, suggesting that the youngsters are kept well away from such monsters. I can add another reason: even if the scar size is halved, it still means a half-grown whale would be attacking a squid far too big for it to handle.
    But there is another problem. Such huge squid must be rare. Granted that sperm whales are better equipped to find them than we are, you would not expect such scars to be "common" - especially since, as I pointed out in Part 1, the squid are probably too big to eat. You would not expect to find them on the small number of individuals which Dr Matthews examined. If he had, one would expect him to announce it as an exception. Furthermore, no other cetologist appears to have made the same claim.
     No, I strongly suspect a misprint, misstatement, or mismeasurement. In fact, if "circumference" is substituted for "diameter", we will revert to the more familiar penny-sized scars. As for claims of scars 18 inches or two feet wide, they can be considered when someone tells us where, when, and by whom, and gives the citation.

Detached Arms
     A second line of evidence submitted by Dr Heuvelmans is the size of appendages vomited up by sperm whales which must have been arms, rather than tentacles, due to their thickness.
     In 1783, Dr. Franz Schwediawer, in an article on the origin of ambergris, quoted an unnamed person as to how a sperm whale was found to have in its mouth a tentacle 27 feet long, with one end partly digested. A long tentacle of this size would be large, but not a record. Nevertheless, Heuvelmans believes it must have been one of the shorter arms because it was "as thick as a ship's mast". However, the original paper said nothing about its thickness.
    Now let us return to Denys de Montfort. A certain Captain Benjohnson told him of having harpooned a whale from whose mouth protruded what turned out to be the arm of what the captain called a "quid" (presumably "squid") although the Frenchman assumed it was an octopus. The suckers, which were set in a double row, were as wide as a hat, and the the thickest end of arm itself as thick as a mast. The other end had apparently been severed earlier, for it was scarred, and surmounted by an extension the size of a man's arm. This is the sort of minor detail which implies authenticity. But the whole thing, measured with a fishing line, was 35 feet long.
     With Capt. Benjohnson was another whaling captain, named Reynolds, who told of having harpooned a whale and finding, floating on the water, the arm of a gigantic squid. It was 45 feet long, tapering to a point at one end, and 2½ feet in diameter at the thickest end, while the suckers at that end were as wide as plates. (Note that the presence of suckers down the whole length, the thickness, and the tapering end, all reveal an arm rather than a tentacle.)
    Call me cynical, if you like, but I can't help seeing these accounts, along with that of Capt. Dens, as the equivalent of fishermen's one-that-got-away yarns.
     A Captain Andersen also told him of discovering, on the rocks near Bergen in Norway, a pair of tentacles attached at the end by a membrane, each of which was ten paces, or 25 feet long. He also recorded that
these arms were so large that it was all he could do to embrace them.
     But did he mean that he could only just wrap his arms around each single "arm", or that he was hard pressed to embrace both the arms and membrane together? The significance is that the latter would imply that the two long tentacles had somehow got detached from the eight arms, but were still attached to the umbrella, or membrane, at their base. 25 feet would not be extraordinary for tentacles.
     Any other cases? In The Cruise of the 'Cachalot', Frank Bullen how one of the first sperm whales his ship harpooned vomited up various pieces of squid, plus a piece of tentacle or arm as stout as a man's body, with six or seven suckers as large as saucers. However, according to Ellis, Bullen's book contains so many implausible incidents of bravery - mostly by himself - and implausible behaviour of sea animals, that most critics consider it at largely fictional.
    Lastly, a naturalist called Dall quoted a Captain E. E. Smith, who claimed to have seen squid arms as large as a beef barrel, with suckers as big as dinner plates. But this memory is non-specific in terms of place and time.
    In Dr Heuvelmans' view, there is no reason for rejecting these accounts, since no specimens exist for most of the Newfoundland strandings reported in the scientific literature. The trouble is, the measurements of the latter were at least made and recorded by reliable people at the time; we do not have to rely on someone's purported memory of something is the unspecified past.
    Apart from their unreliable provenance, there is another reason why I refuse to swallow these yarns: no whale could possibly swallow such a squid. Heuvelmans even pointed out that Bullen's squid remains - which included parts of the body, remember - must have belonged to a squid larger than the Thimble Tickle giant and, as I explained in Part 1, that one would have been too big to eat. As for Capt. Reynolds' 45-foot arm, it would have had to have been attached to a body of a similar length. Just how much space do you think exists in a whale's stomach?
     There is a final possibility. As explained earlier, sperm whales eat their prey whole, instead of tearing them to pieces like sharks, and their jaws are designed for holding, not biting. But is it still possible for one to bite off a squid's arm or tentacle? Giant squids of moderate size have been discovered with one or both long tentacles missing. No proof exists that they were removed by a whale rather than a shark, but it is theoretically possible. But a tentacle is thin. It is one thing to imagine a whale encountering a super squid. It is quite another to conceive of it chomping off one of the 45-foot arms at its base where it is 2½ feet thick. That I can't stomach.
     Also, we tend to forget that the 1960s were the heyday of whaling. While the Yankee whalers killed about 20,000 sperm whale in their entire history, 25,000 were killed in the North Pacific alone in 1965. With the International Whaling Commission sending observers, wouldn't you have expected more of these gigantic arms to have turned up?

More plausible evidence?
     A couple of apocryphal anecdotes hail from Port Simpson in British Columbia. One is of a giant squid washed up on the beach in 1922 in front of the Port Simpson Hotel, which had four arms on either side, each 50 feet long, and one in the middle (?) closer to 100 feet and ended in a large hook. Another supposedly occurred in 1892, when a flotilla of Indian canoes towing a log boom was slowed down by a squid, longer than the raft itself, squashed underneath. One arm (? tentacle) was allegedly 100 feet long and also ended in a large hook. (Hooks are characteristic of the colossal squid which, however, belongs in the Southern Ocean.) As these tales are second or third hand at best, I don't think we should take them seriously.
    Some other anecdotes, however, may have more substance. In 1873 Alexander Murray of the Geological Commission of Canada was in Newfoundland checking out the giant squid. He collected a huge tentacle, plus reports of other strandings, and added:
A very respectable person by the name of Pike informs me that he has seen many of these gigantic squids upon the coast of Labrador; and that he measured the body of one eighty feet from beak to tail. [!] He also states that a certain Mr. Haddon, a school inspector of this place, measured one ninety feet.
      "From beak to tail" is surely a misstatement for "from tentacle tip to tail". Personally, I am always suspicious of round numbers like these, but even if they were considerably exaggerated, they would still imply specimens larger than any official record.
       According to W. White, on 25 October 1924, he and his friend, Frank Strachan went to see "a record octopus" on the beach at Baven-on-Sea near Margate, Natal in South Africa. After measuring it, he claims that he sent this sketch to the Natal Mercury, telling people how to find it. Presumably the animal's eyes were on the underside, but the ten limbs indicate that it was really a squid. According to Heuvelmans, in comparison with the Thimble Tickle specimen, it must have been 115 feet long even without including the long tentacles. I don't think so. You will remember that the Thimble Tickle squid had a head and body length of 20 feet, which does seem about right for this specimen.
     What bothers me is that the body is globular, like an octopus, rather than elongated and flanged like a squid. What was it? A globster? Globsters are odd shaped masses of decomposing tissues, most commonly from dead whales. However, it does seem strange that the right number of appendages are present for a squid.
     It turns out that Heuvelmans' source was a 1925 issue of my favourite magazine, the now defunct Wide World. Although contributors were required to affirm that their stories were true in every detail, some fiction disguised as fact did appear in its pages. However, it was widely read in the English speaking world, including Natal, and a contributor would have been unwise to cite a newspaper which his readers could easily check for themselves.
      The September 1963 issue of the BBC magazine, Animals carried an article on sea serpents. In response, a J. D. Starkey wrote to describe his experience in World War II on an Admiralty trawler lying off the Maldive Islands. In the wee hours of the morning he was fishing by dangling a cluster of light bulbs over the side. To a cut a long story short, he was amazed to watch as a gigantic squid rose up and lay alongside the ship. Even more amazing, it extended the whole length of the ship: at least 175 feet, or nearly four times the length of the previous record holder. This, of course, is just one man's unsubstantiated testimony, but it has no internal contradictions or any other evidence for it being false except that it is fantastic.
     Richard Ellis, whose book has been a leading source of material for this article, is skeptical of super giant squid, but keeps an open mind, and there was one report which really impressed him. He had stated on television that nobody had ever seen a living giant squid. "Not true," said Dennis Braun in a letter replete with circumstantial information. Back in early 1969 he had been a Marine about to leave for Vietnam. They had been training at Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico which, Ellis points out, is just south of the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic.
     They were anchored about half a mile off the island, in water at least 50 feet deep. Nevertheless, it was incredibly clear, and they could see right to the sandy bottom as if gazing into a swimming pool. For ten minutes or so he and two friends leaned on the port-side rail watching an enormous squid resting on the sandy bottom. He estimated it was at least 100 feet long. Of course, he might have guessed wrong, but it was certainly much, much bigger than the largest known. The irony was, Corporal Braun didn't know that. Ellis spoke to him, and found he was totally innocent about the controversy surrounding the giant squid. He had written simply to contradict the statement that no-one had ever seen one alive. Although he knew that his squid was very large, he had no idea that it was unique.
     So, are there really supersized giant squid down in the depths? You pays your money and you takes your chances. One thing is certain: if they are any, they are rare, and you have even less chance of finding them than catching a sasquatch. Unless one of them is kind enough to die where it can be washed ashore where scientists can measure it, they will continue to remain the stuff of legends.
     One other point to contemplate: if Dennis Braun or - perish the thought! - J. D. Starkey really saw what they claim they saw, it would be the merest coincidence that the squid which paid them a visit was the largest in the world.


  1. Very nice, interesting and thoroughly researched article! Thanks for that!
    What is your take on the concept/idea/tales of giant octopi? Can we hope for an article on the subject? I do find the idea slightly more fascinating, because it is harder to explain then giant squids, given we dont have any scientific proof(to my knowledge, open to be proven wrong) of such things...
    Best Regards

    1. I don't think the evidence is very strong, but I keep an open mind.
      Incidentally, the plural of "octopus" is "octopuses". You can't use the 2nd declension Latin plural, "octopi", because it is a 3rd declension Greek word.

    2. Malcolm,
      Honestly a bit surprised that you correct my grammar...
      Anyhow, I looked it up before posting and decided to use octopi because to quote from here:
      "Although it is often supposed that octopi is the ‘correct’ plural of octopus, and it has been in use for longer than the usual Anglicized plural octopuses, it in fact originates as an error. " It has been longer in use. Personally I would prefer octopodes... Anyhow, I dont think that it matters at all for the argument.

  2. The key observations Smith mentions are the reports of suckers on tentacles the size of plates, etc. These are striking accounts, not obviously exaggerated from suckers the size of a penny. Could the digestive juices of a sperm whale cause an ingested tentacle to expand before it is vomited out? This would be like soaking a latex mold of a human foot in alcohol, causing it to expand and resemble a rather "convincing" Bigfoot impression. If, on the other hand, an ingested tentacle would turn to slurry before expanding to such a size, then these accounts can be taken as evidence suggesting the presence of unusually large living cephalopods.

  3. If the tentacles, or arms, expand in the whale's stomach, I think we would have had a lot of reports from the 20th century, when whaling was much, much more intensive.


The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.