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Scientists know that battles occur between the sperm whale (the predator) and the giant squid (the prey). Although no such battle has ever been witnessed, giant squid have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales.
Drawing: Genevieve Johnson

June 30, 2002
Legends of the Deep
  Real Audio

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the central Indian Ocean.

We are currently tracking widely dispersed sperm whales in the deep trenches surrounding the Chagos Archipelago. In most cases their dive cycles have been lasting for over an hour, which may indicate that these animals are males searching for preferred prey - large squid. In some instances we know their prey to be Architeuthis - the legendary 'giant squid.'

Today we approached a large sperm whale as it was "logging" (lying motionless at the surface) off the port bow of the Odyssey. As we drew near, the whale abruptly fluked. As we drifted over the smooth velvet-like surface-the so-called "footprint" of this diving whale-(a footprint is what is left of an upwelling stroke by the whales' tail as the whale starts its dive), I noticed something floating just below the surface about 20 meters away. "It's a squid" yelled Chris from the bow. We scooped it up in our net, laid it out on the deck and found it to be a large fin, 21 inches (55 centimeters) long. It was the fin of a very large squid. On most squid species, the fins make relatively long attachments to the mantle or squid's torso. In 'giant squids', the fins are short and heart shaped and are situated at the rear of the mantle. The sheer size of the fin we had found led us to believe that it had once belonged to a very large animal, perhaps a species of giant squid, and inasmuch as the fins of giant squid are small in relation to their bodies, we guessed this one to have been a very large animal. Initial estimates by the scientist and researchers on board, had this squid between 20 - 25 feet in total body length (including the tentacles). We're very excited about our finding, it is not something you see everyday. We immediately called Iain Kerr back in Boston, it has long been his hope that the Odyssey crew will one day capture the first live giant squid on film, our chances being better than most due to the long periods of time we spend among sperm whales. Our chances could be greatly increased if we were able to obtain a good sonar, this would allow us to track the whale through the dive and be in the exact position when the whale surfaced to see if it had a squid in its jaws. One of the theories on how sperm whales kill giant squid is that they grasp them in their jaws, then rush to the surface, the sudden change in pressure presumably killing the squid from the bends.

Over the last five centuries, there have been only a few reports from fisherman who have encountered freshly dead giant squids. However by far the greatest number of records refer to dead stranded animals, pieces caught by chance in nets, or floating, or the remains of squid that were found in the stomachs of dead sperm whales. (Clarke, 1966) As strandings are often found in remote places, specimens have often deteriorated, been damaged or have broken up by the time a biologist arrives on the scene, therefore such fragments are often all that is available to biologists in their attempts to reconstruct the life and behavior of these mysterious animals.

Jule, Genevieve and Rodrigo examine the squid fin found floating on the surface of the sea.
Photo: Chris Johnson

A maroon layer of skin covered the remains we pulled on deck, the flesh underneath was firm, white and smooth and very fresh. After photographing and measuring the fin on the foredeck, Julie placed the remains in a plastic bag and we froze it. It will be sent back to the lab for analysis to determine if in fact this was a species of giant squid. To carry just this single fragment securely required two of us . It seems reasonable to conclude it had just been killed and then regurgitated by the sperm whale, which resurfaced to blow some 400 meters off our stern.

The lure and lore surrounding giant squid has always been intriguing. The term 'giant squid' usually refers to animals belonging to the genus 'Architeuthis'-a genus that may contain but a single species. However, human ignorance about these animals is such that there may be many more species-- perhaps as many as 18. (Roeleveld &Lipinski, 1991). If 'giant' is defined as a squid longer than 2 meters, then there are at least four other genera that could be considered giant along with Architeuthis . Giant squid may be the largest of all Cephalopods; they [along with octopusses, nautiluses and cuttlefishes] are separated as a distinct class because of the ring of arms that surrounds the mouth. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the largest of all the giant squids - Architeuthis, is that as far as we know, no biologist has ever actually seen a mature animal alive.

Although humans may not know much about the habits of Architeuthis, there is certainly one very large, warm-blooded mammal that does, the giant squid's arch enemy, the Sperm whale. Of all the best-known predator / prey relationships, perhaps none inspire more awe than that of the Sperm whale and the giant squid. An Architeuthis with its arms fully extended may attain a length of 60 feet, but the whale can weigh twenty times more. Despite all of its' size and alleged ferocity in the battle with the sperm whale, it is almost certainly the giant squid that always loses.

Over the years, authors from Herman Melville to Frank T. Bullen to Jules Verne, have tried to describe what such an encounter between these two creatures is like. The fact that although the animals are real, no such battle has ever been witnessed, has led to endless conjecture and colorful personal opinion. There are probably few more tantalizing mysteries in nature.

Victor Scheffer, Marine Biologist and author of 'The Year of the Whale' describes the dive of a large male sperm whale as follows:

The fin measured 21 inches (55cm) leading the researchers on the Odyssey to intially conclude that it may have belonged to a species of giant squid.
Photo: Chris Johnson
    "The pressure is now 100 tons to the square foot; the water is deathly cold and quiet. At a depth of 3,000 feet he levels off and begins to search for prey. The sonar device in his great dome is operating at full peak. Within a quarter-hour he reads an attractive series of echoes and he quickly turns to the left, then to the right. Suddenly he smashes into a vague, rubbery, pulsating wall. The acoustic signal indicates the center of the Thing. He swings open his gate like lower jaw with its sixty teeth, seizes the prey, clamps it securely in his mouth, and shoots for the surface. He has found a half-grown giant squid, thirty feet long, three hundred pounds in weight. The squid writhes in torment and tries to tear at its captor, but its sucking tentacles slide from the smooth rushing body. When its parrot beak touches the head of the whale it snaps shut and cuts out a small clean chunk of black skin and white fibrous tissue. He crushes the squid's central spark of life, and its gray tentacles twist and roll obscenely like dismembered snakes. Now at ease, the bull turns the dead beast and leisurely chomps it into bite sized pieces, each the size of a football, and thrusts them mechanically into his gullet with his muscular tongue."

Architeuthis is an enigma, a species we know to be real, but for which it is not certain that any human has ever seen a large one alive. We only hope that the data obtained from the specimen we collected today, will help our species learn more about this incredible species.

But what will happen if one day someone finds or films a living Architeuthis in its natural habitat? Will it not lose some of its mystery, and thus its allure? Will we be the poorer for having deprived ourselves of the anticipation of finding it? As John Steinbeck once wrote, "An ocean without its unnamed monster would be like a completely dreamless sleep." We all want to find the giant squid, but since doing so will demystify it, perhaps in the end it will be better if nature prevents us from finding it!


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    Log by Genevieve Johnson

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