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Myth or monster?

By OLIVER ROBB | Tasmania has seen a giant squid washed up on its beaches four times — the first was mentioned in a Bruny Island journal in 1915, discovered at Adventure Bay. In July, 2002, a female reached the shores of Seven Mile Beach, close to Hobart, and for one day was exibited at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

An ignomious end for a creature of the deep

Viewing the strange, pallid creature at the Museum, I was reminded of the time, some years ago at Palm Beach wharf on Sydney’s northern beaches, I watched three men walk past carrying what looked strangely like a huge 9m squid tentacle over their shoulders. I was not mistaken. The rest of the monster mollusc was to be found on the back of a truck in the car park.

In the film, the same 30m squid was shown to be vengefully terrorising swimmers and boats

But like Bruce, the mechanical white shark from the film Jaws, this was not the full squid. It was a plastic motorised model that was to become the star of an American movie called Beast (based on the Peter Benchley novel) that appeared on Sunday night television a couple of years later.

In the film, the same 30m squid was shown to be vengefully terrorising swimmers and boats, at one point emerging from the sea and grabbing a shack in its tentacles. (I later learned that scientists had declared the movie “a fiasco”, filled with inacuracies. So if you did happen to catch it, don’t believe a single thing!)

Even so, this is the stuff of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the giant squid’s tentacles were described as “curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas”. Fiction has built on myth, and stories about giant squid continue to grow more exaggerated. The trouble is that, from marine biologists to fishers, there are no reliable reports of seeing a giant squid alive.

The Colossal squid of the subantarctic is actually bigger, known to remain alive on the surface, and may be the perpetrator of some of the popular squid attack tales

So is there any basis in fact for such a portrayal of this giant among cephalopods (Greek for “head on a foot” or also “many arms”)? The answer, from scientists, is a resounding “no”. While the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, was once considered to be the largest invertebrate (spineless creature) known, its claim to that particular fame has been surpassed. The Colossal squid of the subantarctic is actually bigger, known to remain alive on the surface, and may be the perpetrator of some of the popular squid attack tales . For all that, Architeuthis dux remains one of the most mysterious and least understood creatures on the planet.

Because these are giants indeed. In the late 1800s, one in New Zealand was recorded as being over 19m and weighing about a ton, with eyes 20cm in diameter. Another was 175 feet (a wopping 57m), as reported by a sailor on a British Admiralty trawler in the Maldives during World War II — although here the scientists again wade in, declaring 60 feet is possible if you count the long feeding tentacles, but 175 — no!

For all this, one leading American researcher, Clyde F E Roper of the Smithsonian Museum, says, “We know more about dinosaurs than we know about giant squid.”

Despite hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on research into the latter, including mounting major international expeditions in deep sea submersibles trying to find and film them, nobody has ever managed to record them in their natural habitat.

Which is why, in July, 2002, when a 250kg giant squid washed up at Seven Mile Beach, not far from Hobart, there was great national and international interest.

Loading up a stranded giant squid, an occasion which always attacts a camera or two

The squid, which was immediately put on ice, later went on show for the public at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery on August 23 and stayed there for one evening. Some 3,000 people came, saw, exclaimed and took photographs, their first chance to see an animal many of them had never imagined existed.

Exactly what do we know?

Well then, what is known about living giant squid? According to many reports that have surfaced over many hundreds of years, these creatures are not too different from the mechanical one filmed for Beast, except that they generally live in much deeper waters than Sydney’s Pittwater where the film was made.

Squid grow extremely fast and keep growing until they die, the giant squid probably at about three years. They pack a lot into their short life, eating anything that comes their way (even other squid) and mating whenever and wherever possible, according to the Institute of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies.

Giant squid have a formidable parrot-like beak, and a rasping tongue, or radula, to tear at flesh, combined with sharp-toothed suckers on their tentacles. However fearsome these weapons may be in the deep, giant squid are out of their element at the surface of the water and lose all power.

Another nail in the myth of the giant squid.

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