The Kraken Awakens - Biology Week


Serving as the basis of legends for centuries and the mystery of modern marine science for decades, the giant squid has eluded man’s searching eye for some time now. But a recent and daring discovery has finally allowed aquatic researchers to have a first-hand look at this enormous and enigmatic creature.

Mural of a giant squid in battle with a sperm whale at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Photo by Etee.

The giant squid, or Architeuthis, is a 43-ft long-limbed, deep-sea-dwelling beast whose only known enemy is the equally giant sperm whale. The giant squid has long been evasive to marine biologists due to the extreme depths it inhabits. However, modern technological advances have allowed these scientists to delve further down into the ocean as of late; and it was this technology, along with skill and luck, that led to the first-ever encounter between man and the arcane giant squid in its natural environment caught on film.

Earlier this month it was announced that a joint expedition by Japanese public broadcaster NHK, the Discovery Channel, and Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science were successful in finding and filming the giant squid from a manned submersible during one of 100 dives in the Pacific last summer. The encounter took place in waters east of Chichi Island about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) south of Tokyo. The crew followed the creature to a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet)! The encounter revealed the squid to be a fast and aggressive predator — a finding that surprised some researchers who had believed the giant squid to be quite slow due to its low metabolic rate, cold blood, and dark icy home.

One notable aspect that enabled this discovery was the use of remote vehicles to observe and film these amazing creatures in their natural environment in a non-destructive way.

“I’ve been saying for years that we have been exploring the ocean in the wrong way and scaring animals away,” says Edith Widder, President of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association and one of the head marine biologists for the giant squid expedition. “The fact is that with only eight deployments of the unobtrusive camera system, plus optical lure that I was using, we had five sightings of giant squid- and two of those sightings were on the second deployment. For an animal that has been described as so elusive for so long, that’s a lot of camera time.”

In this light, man’s method of search was as much a reason for our inability to find the giant squid as the creature’s reclusive nature. Dr. Widder strongly promotes a non-aggressive means of tracking sea life, a technique that apparently worked in spades during her team’s most recent expedition.

The giant squid inhabits the deep regions of temperate to subtropical marine waters, and is thought to be the largest or second largest living invertebrate. “Mollusks are one of the oldest phyla and the class of mollusks known as cephalopods, of which the giant squid is one, have existed in the ocean for 500 million years,” says Dr. Widder.

Yet the fact is that until 2001, much of what was learned about the giant squid came only from carcass examinations of specimens that were found floating at sea or had washed up on beaches. A New Zealand marine biologist Steve O’Shea collected and filmed a number of juveniles, but he was unable to keep them alive in captivity.

So this newly recorded footage of an adult giant squid in the wild has galvanized the marine science community, pushing the boundaries of research for not only the giant squid but for deep-sea exploration in general — a development of no small feat if you consider we know more about what’s under moon rocks than Earth’s ocean floor. Perhaps the same technology and surmounted knowledge that allowed for this giant squid footage will help us learn more about the myriad of mysterious aliens that dwell within our own seas.

But will the giant squid be around long enough for us to truly know it, or will we unwittingly destroy its habitat and force it into extinction before we are even able to really explore this grand creature? As Dr. Widder points out, “We have no way of knowing for sure, but given that humans have removed 90 percent of the largest fish from the ocean over the past 60 years, I think it’s very likely the removal of so much food has had a profound impact on giant squid populations.”

The giant squid is believed to be the basis for the myth of the huge sea monster legend, the “Kraken.” The Kraken was said to have arms that reached as high as a ships mast, and was known to take down entire ships with its tentacles. [1]

“I’ve seen a lot of strange things happen at sea. Although sea stories tend to get exaggerated, I don’t discount the possibility,” says Dr. Widder regarding the giant squid/Kraken comparison.

The Kraken has been likened to the Biblical Leviathon, and the Norse “world serpent” Jormungandri, but is perhaps best known in the English-speaking world by John Wyndam’s science fiction work The Kraken Wakes, and by Lord Tennyson’s epic poem “The Kraken,” in which he thus describes this monster of the deep…

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, un-invaded sleep
The Kraken…
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise…

This enigmatic and awe-inspiring creature who has been sparking the imaginations of sea-goers and artists for so long has finally been confronted for the first time at the unfathomable watery depths it calls home — a great achievement for the world of marine biology. The future ramifications of this could possibly increase our understanding of the ocean beyond known measure.

1. Marx, Christy (2004). Life in the Ocean Depths. New York: Rosen. pp. 35. ISBN 082393988X