Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

The first live giant squid wasn’t seen until 2006, but they’ve been alive in the human imagination for generations. Image by Science Photo Library/Corbis

Close Encounters with a Big Squid

Giant squid are so elusive they seem mythical. Here are five places that prove they’re real.

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by J.R. McConvey

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Hovering in the ocean’s inky depths, battling sperm whales with powerful tentacles and a razor-sharp beak, the giant squid is one of the ocean’s great mysteries. This elusive “kraken” has haunted our imaginations for centuries, inspiring books and films. In real life, though, the beast is usually seen dead and washed ashore. It was only in 2012 that a Japanese crew filmed the first images of a live giant squid in the deep sea. For those without submersibles, here are a few places to see a monster squid.

Glover’s Harbour, Newfoundland

In November 1878, fishermen near Glover’s Harbour spotted a tangled red mass thrashing in the shallows. Using a thick rope, they hauled the mysterious creature ashore—it was a giant squid. Ever practical, locals measured the supersized squid—17 meters, tentacles included—before chopping it up for dog food. In 2001, artist Don Foulds recreated the squid in a life-size concrete model. The attraction, which is also featured on a postage stamp, has its own annual festival.

The Rooms, St. John’s, Newfoundland

Frederick Aldrich pursued giant squid with an obsessive passion. The renowned marine biologist from Memorial University was a world authority on giant squid and examined 15 different carcasses during his lifetime. One of the last specimens he studied, now preserved in a tank at the museum The Rooms, presented a rare research opportunity. It arrived on shore with its eyes intact, making Aldrich one of the first to examine the creature’s dinner plate-sized peepers.

Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand

The Te Papa Museum is the only place the curious can see a preserved colossal squid, the giant squid’s shorter, heavier cousin. This 495-kilogram whopper was caught in the Antarctic in 2007, when the crew of the San Aspiring hauled up a heaving longline and discovered the squid snacking on a snagged toothfish. The squid was dying, so the crew did what they could to preserve it for science. It took two hours to secure the squid in a cargo net and lift it by crane into the ship’s freezer hold. Back in New Zealand, the one-of-a-kind specimen was delivered to the government. Te Papa’s examination of what was dubbed the “squidcicle” was webcast to squid enthusiasts around the world.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

The two giant squid on display in the Smithsonian Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall took a complicated journey from Spain to Washington. Moving two behemoths across the Atlantic presented a logistical challenge. With no professional squid movers to consult, scientists asked the tacticians of the United States Navy. But a boat wasn’t the safest way to move a tank of toxic preservative, so they enlisted the United States Air Force. “Operation calamari” flew the squid in a C-17 cargo plane typically used to move a different sort of tank, the armored kind.

Natural History Museum, London, England

The Natural History Museum’s resident giant squid inspired an apocalyptic squid cult. Sort of. British author China Miéville’s 2010 novel, Kraken, tells of the specimen’s theft from the museum by fanatics who worship giant squid as gods. The reality is less bizarre. Named Archie after the squid’s scientific name, Architeuthis, this female was caught in the Falkland Islands in 2004. It took 12 scientists to haul all 8.62 meters of Archie into her permanent home—a formalin-filled tank in the museum’s Darwin Centre.