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Survival Skills of the Elusive Giant Squid

The Truth Behind the Kraken: Demystifying the Giant Squid

drawing of a kracken attacking a ship

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.

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 six pieces of breathtaking footage. See for yourself in the video below:


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