Stranger than fiction - the giant squid

Feature story - 5 May, 2006
Looming out of the inky blackness of the deep sea waters - an enormous tentacled creature is locked in a life or death struggle with a mighty sperm whale. This classic Jules Verne-like image of a legendary sea-monster is still our most common image of one of the least known denizens of the deep - the giant squid. Oceans Campaigner Alejandro writes from the Esperanza.

How a live giant squid may look

Found most frequently in the south east Pacific Ocean, these remarkable creatures also live in the north Atlantic, which makes the well-preserved deep seas around the Azores an excellent place to look for them. Although we have only a short time to explore, and the giant squid is notoriously elusive, in our hearts we can't help believing that our newly-resurrected drop-camera might capture at least a glimpse as it scans the seamount at depths of up to 800 metres. Of course our heads tell us not to hold out too much hope.

Giant squid are the second largest invertebrates on earth, exceeded in size only by their recently discovered close relative, the colossal squid (an estimated 14 metres long), and are one of the biggest predators. The largest giant squid are female and grow to 13 metres, although only just over two metres of this is the body (or mantle). The rest is tentacles! Males are slightly smaller at 10 metres.

A giant mystery

But if they are so big, why don't we know much more about them? The available information is fragmentary, based on dead or dying animals that have been washed ashore or captured in trawl nets. We do know that they possess the second largest eyes of any living creature (second only to - you've guessed it, it's colossal cousin), live at depths of between 200 and 4,000 metres, and belong to the same family as the octopus and cuttlefish.

Although many expeditions have set out in search of these ocean giants, only one has successfully captured images of them in the wild. In 2004 Japanese scientists used sperm whales, which love to feed on giant squid, as guides. They snapped more than 500 extraordinary images of one of the massive cephalopods at a depth of 800 metres, before it broke free after snagging itself on a hook. They also recovered one of its tentacles, severed during the struggle.

Save the squid?

As commercial fishing operations empty our coastal waters of fish and head out to bottom-trawl the high-seas to fish at ever greater depths, they are literally removing entire populations of deep water fish.

In order to ensure that healthy populations survive in our oceans we need to protect the wider marine environment as a whole. That's why we urgently need marine reserves, areas similar to national parks on land, which are off limits to all forms of exploitation - to give the seas time to recover. Otherwise the treasures of our oceans - the amazing giant squid among them - could all too soon be a thing of the past.

Take Action!

Stop the clock on bottom trawling before it's too late