A Blue View: Survival Skills of the Elusive Giant Squid

The giant squid sounds like the stuff of myths—and it is. Since the 12th century, this massive underwater cephalopod has been chronicled in tales of a “Kraken” attacking sailors and destroying whole ships with its gargantuan set of tentacles. But unlike most mythical creatures, the giant squid actually does exist—only it’s not the boat-crushing monster depicted in legends.

Published October 06, 2015


Architeuthis—its scientific name—resides 1,650 to 3,300 feet below the ocean’s surface, which explains why we know so little about it: Deep-sea research is difficult and expensive. What we do know about the giant squid originated from studies of carcasses that have washed up onshore or been hauled in by fishermen.

This apex predator of the deep grows to be as long as a school bus, with eyes the size of beach balls and eight powerful arms covered in 2-inch-wide toothed suckers. It pumps water through a funnel located on the underside of its body to propel itself around the ocean’s depths, hunting fish, shrimp and other squid—sometimes even attacking sperm whales. Its two feeding tentacles can reach prey 33 feet away, snatching up unsuspecting creatures and guiding them to a sharp beak in the center of its arms. The prey is sliced to pieces first by the squid’s beak, then by its radula, an organ similar to a tongue but covered in rows and rows of teeth. Not a pretty way to go!

Despite its size, the giant squid does have a couple of predators. Sperm whales have been found washed up on beaches with giant squid remains in their stomachs and sucker marks and bite marks on their skin. Southern sleeper sharks and swordfish have also been discovered with squid beaks in their bellies.

A solitary creature, Architeuthis must fight its battles alone. Its defense mechanisms include squirting ink at its enemies while rapidly propelling itself out of harm’s way, as well as regeneration. You heard right—as if its size and strength weren’t impressive enough, the giant squid can also sacrifice its tentacle arms, when necessary, and regrow them later.

Scientists believe these incredible animals live all around the world, reproducing only once in a short lifespan of five years or less. Because of their hard-to-access habitat, they weren’t successfully photographed until 2004. Video documentation didn’t exist until July 2012, when a team of scientists—including oceanographer and inventor Edith Widder—managed to lure and film one of them.

The trick? A camera platform that produced a pinwheel of blue light. This light resembled the bioluminescent light produced by a common deep-sea jellyfish called Atolla. When the Atolla jelly is being chewed by a predator, it uses this light to signal other, bigger predators in the hope that they will attack its attacker.

Widder hung the camera platform about 2,300 feet beneath a surface buoy and waited with the camera rolling. Her clever ruse worked! A giant squid noticed the light and took the bait. The team walked away from the project with breathtaking footage.

Episode Transcript

Its eye is the size of your head.

It lives more than 3,000 feet deep in oceans around the world and is 30-feet long, yet it lacks a backbone. With eight arms and two tentacles, it is the origin of the myth of the Kraken.

Its only predator is the sperm whale, whose numerous battle scars show evidence of this strange, epic battle between mammal and mollusk.

I speak of the giant squid. Architeuthis. The only invertebrate larger is the colossal squid, Mesonychoteuthis, that lives in the frigid depths of the Antarctic Ocean and about which little is known. But stay tuned. The deep sea is a frontier.

Teuthologist (that's squid scientist for the rest of us) Rui Rosa of the University of Lisbon says the colossal squid "weighs half a ton, with hooks in its tentacles." But is the colossal squid the stuff of nightmares? Not really, he says. His findings show it's more like a giant blob.

These squids, both giant and colossal, have evolved through "abyssal gigantism" —the tendency of deep water creatures to get much larger than their shallow water cousins. Think of the Alaskan king crab, a single leg of which can feed a family, compared to the Chesapeake blue crab, which can take a bushel.

This gigantism also applies to the squid's nervous system. Most invertebrate nerve cells are visible only under a microscope, but all squids have a large nerve cell—the squid giant axon—that is as thick as the diameter of a felt-tip pen and extends the entire length of its body. This giant axonal network enables a terrifically fast startle-escape response. It can contract its mantle and jet-propulse out of the way of danger.

Though adept at self-preservation, the giant squid is also a hunter. It can whip-crack its long tentacles like a net full of deadly, razor-sharp suckers. It can be cannibalistic. Scientists believe some may even attack and eat small whales.

But how does it find food to eat in the dark abyss? Incredibly, in a habitat that's always midnight black, the giant squid hunts by sight.

With its gigantic eye, it can detect the faintest glimmers of bioluminescent light. Bioluminescence is chemical light, generated by plankton, jellies, anglerfish, and many other creatures who signal for food and mates, much like deep-sea fireflies.

American marine biologist Dr. Edie Widder used bioluminescence to her advantage when she recently captured on film, for the first time ever, an adult giant squid.

She and her team designed a biomimic lure, a blue pinwheel of light, identical to the distress signal of a common deep-sea jellyfish, specifically to attract the squid.

It worked. The giant squid, the stuff of sailors' legends, zoomed into view, sinuous, metallic-golden, making history in both filmmaking and marine science. In the cockpit of their submersible, the scientists' elation can clearly be heard—like kids at Christmas!

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