Maybe 50 or so giant squid have been documented in the past century. One was found alive in Timble Tickle Bay, Newfoundland in 1878. Fishermen found pulled it out of the water and tied it to a tree to die as the tide retreated. They chopped it up for dog food — but not before it was measured at 6m from tail to beak. The tentacles were reported as measuring 11m feet, tipped with suckers 10cm across — the latter figures seriously questioned by experts.
So we now know they do exist and are more scientifically described as a carnivorous mollusc, with a long, torpedo-shaped body and at one end, surrounding a beak-like mouth, four pairs of arms. A pair of tentacles, thinner and longer than the rest, is used to catch food and bring it to the mouth. Those huge, unnerving eyes — as described in literature – are the largest in the animal kingdom.
They move through the ocean using a jet of water forced out of the body by a siphon. They eat fish, other squid and (there is some conjecture, though most doubtful) sometimes whales.
The latest giant squid to wash up on Tasmania’s shores was an adult female, and although she had lost her longest tentacles, the measurements of her remaining arms suggest she may even have reached 16m — still in doubt, because this would make her a little larger than the average giant squid found to date.
One television report was of a “torrid sexual affair”, suggested by sucker marks on her neck and a nip on the top of her head
At one stage there was speculation she may have been a new species – but this is not now considered to be so.
And why or how did she come to die in our waters? She was well fed and strong. There were no marks to suggest a tangle with fishing tackle or the propeller of a boat. One television report was of a “torrid sexual affair”, suggested by sucker marks on her neck and a nip on the top of her head which may have been made by a male’s beak. Sperm embedded in her body seemed to indicate a recent mating — but as it happens, some research says the female can carry sperm for up to three months before becoming pregnant.
“Tasmania is turning out to be a hot spot for giant squid,” says David Pemberton, senior curator of zoology at The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. He suggests that as nearby Storm Bay is a breeding ground for cuttlefish and arrow squid (which gather each year in September and March for ‘synchronised’ breeding’, maybe – just maybe – giant squid do the same. Though, not likely in Storm Bay itself. ¶
Oliver adds a footnote: If you do stumble on a giant squid washed up, don’t think of chainsawing off a few rings off for dinner – or even for the dog. Don’t even touch it. Giant squid have ammonium ions in their flesh which, being lighter than water, helps them with flotation. This same compound makes the creatures stink to high hell. A man I know of who touched a giant squid said the smell wouldn’t come off his hand even after days and days of repeated washing. But if you do manage to remove the ink sac with gloves on, then you’ve got the makings for at least 10,000 gluggy black risottos!