Colossal Squid vs Giant Squid: the Real Kraken Sea Monster
The Myth of the Kraken
The giant squid and the colossal squid are two mythical sea monsters that turned out to be all too real. The legend of the Kraken tells of a massive and terrifying creature which would emerge from the depths to pluck sailors off deck or pull entire ships to the bottom of the sea. Superstitious seafarers lived in fear of the beast, and stories of ships that met their fates at the ends of huge tentacles spread throughout the world.
Really, the story of the Kraken dates back to Greek mythology, but the monster we’re familiar with today has its roots in Norse legend. Even hundreds of years ago some of the more daring biologists presumed the Kraken to be some kind of giant cephalopod, an octopus or squid, though this explanation didn’t always fit other descriptions of the beast.
Today we assume this cephalopod model was borne from sightings of giant squid. As we can only imagine, standing on the deck of an old sailing ship at night while a massive giant squid surfaces just a few feet away must have been a terrifying experience for sailors who knew little of biology or the natural world.
So, while the myth of the Kraken may have begun because of early sailor’s fear of the ocean, it was probably perpetuated and molded by sightings of a real creature, the giant squid. And, of course, a 30-foot giant squid was likely exaggerated way out of proportion each time the story was retold until it became the horrible Kraken, capable of sinking ships and causing all sorts of mayhem.
By the height of the time when people were sailing for the New World the Kraken was tops on the list of superstitious sea terrors, along with Mermaids, Sea Serpents and ghost ships. Jules Verne even immortalized the Kraken in his classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where the submarine Nautilus is attacked by a massive cephalopod.
In truth, the giant squid can’t sink a ship, and it’s not likely you’ll be snatched off deck by one. But it is a fascinating and dangerous creature we are only beginning to understand.
The Giant Squid
Reports of giant squid corpses date back to the 14th century. There have been hundreds of alleged cases of huge squid washed ashore, found in the stomachs of whales, caught in fishing rigs and found floating at the surface of the water.
The facts tend to get muddled depending on who is telling the story or doing the examination. It was once thought the giant squid could reach lengths of sixty or seventy feet, but we now know that 35 feet from head to the end of its tentacles is probably as big as they get.
Still, these are large animals, and it’s no wonder they have earned such a fearsome reputation.
Origins of the Kraken
The giant squid lives at great depths where it hunts fish and other squid. But even though these beasts are formidable predators, they aren’t quite at the top of the food chain. They are prey for deep-diving sperm whales, though it is hard to imagine they go quietly.
Many whales are found with scars from the suckers of giant squid tentacles, remnants of tremendous battles we can only imagine, fought far down in the lightless world of the ocean deep.
The scientific genus of the giant squid is called Architeuthis, and previously it was thought there could be as many as eight species found in different geographic locations. However, genetic testing done at the University of Copenhagen in 2013 concluded that there is actually only one single species of Architeuthis, and only one population.
This squid lives in almost every ocean of the world, and specimens have been collected from places as diverse as Scotland and New Zealand. So how could there be only one population throughout the entire world?
One theory has to do with plankton. Plankton consists of all kinds of tiny organisms which do not swim well on their own, and are carried around the ocean by currents. Some of these are the larvae of much larger creatures, such as crabs, fish and even cephalopods like the giant squid.
Giant squid larvae are carried throughout the ocean currents until they are large and strong enough to find their own habitat. This explains not only how a single population can exists worldwide, but how the legend of the Kraken is so well known throughout different cultures.
Until recently nobody had seen Architeuthis alive in its natural environment. All specimens had been collected either dead or dying, and so little was known about the living animal. That would change in 2004, when the giant squid finally revealed itself on camera.
Giant Squid Caught on Camera
The first pictures of a giant squid in the wild came from Japanese researcher Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera of Japan's National Museum of Nature and Science in 2004. The series of images showed a large squid at the end of a fishing line, and DNA testing of tissue left on the hook identified it as a giant squid. The images were groundbreaking, and even non-scientists were stunned by this incredible creature.
Two years later, in 2006, the first video evidence of Architeuthis surfaced. One clip was a fleeting shot of a large squid preying on smaller squids in the Sea of Cortez. The other, filmed off the coast of Japan, showed a much smaller squid just before it died.
But it was the incredible 2012 video by a team led by Dr. Kubodera, American researcher Dr. Edith Widder and marine biologist Dr.Steve O’Shea that stunned the world. Aired on the Discovery Channel during the special Monster Squid: the Giant is Real, it showed footage of a giant squid in attack mode, filmed from a submersible submarine. With amazing power and speed Architeuthis descended on the bait, giving the team some excellent full-on shots of the creature.
Finally, here was the mythical Kraken. Could it take down a sailing ship? Not likely, but there was no doubt by its ferocity it could pose a serious threat to any human diver it saw as prey. Even the much smaller Humboldt squid has been known to attack and injure divers.
At thirty feet or longer, with a ferocious beak and relentless tentacles, Architeuthis is a real sea monster come to life. Many people survive shark attacks every year, even by the feared Great White, but if the Kraken got hold of a human being there would be no hope. What could be more terrifying?
How about a bigger Kraken?
Finding the Giant Squid
The Colossal Squid
The colossal squid grows even longer than the giant squid, and has nasty hooks on its tentacles instead of only suckers. First discovered in 1925, after almost a hundred years there is still little known about this monster.
Like the giant squid it lives at great depths, and adult are preyed on by deep-diving whales. The largest known specimen weighed in at over a thousand pounds, making this the largest cephalopod in the world. However, based on comparisons with the beaks found in the guts of sperm whales, even this massive specimen appears to be average size.
Image by Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0
So how big can colossal squids get? For now nobody knows, but if 1,000 pounds is a moderately sized squid we can only imagine.
Colossal squids aren’t just longer than giant squids, they’re heavier creatures as well. Colossal squids have shorter tentacles, and much larger bodies. To put it another way, if a giant and colossal squid are the same length, the colossal squid will be much heavier.
It’s easy to see, though they are both cephalopods, these two squid are not closely related. They’re not even in the same genus, and the scientific name for the colossal squid is Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni.
If you’re worried about a huge, half-ton Kraken dragging you into the depths of the ocean, there is one piece of good news. Unlike the giant squid which lives in various climates throughout the world where people are present, the colossal squid’s habitat is limited to the frigid waters of the southern oceans. It lives primarily around Antarctica and its range doesn’t extend past the southern tips of Africa and South America.
That makes Architeuthis the better candidate for historical Kraken sightings, since it was probably seen much more often. But surely there had to be some encounters with Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni as well, which would have only served to bolster the legend.
The Kraken Lives
So has either of these beasts ever harmed a human? There are lots of reports from days of old, but it is not likely any are true. Still, there are some strange documented stories out there. In 2003 the crew of a racing yacht reported a giant squid attacked their boat and wouldn’t let go. In 1874 a schooner called the Pearl was allegedly attacked and sunk by a giant squid. A Norwegian Naval vessel was allegedly attacked three times by a giant squid in 1930.
Are these stories true? If so, might some of the old fisherman tales be true as well?
As we learn more about these incredible creatures no doubt they will only become more interesting. But one question remains: If such massive creatures can remain hidden for so long, what else might await us under the waves? The possibilities seem almost endless.
The legendary Kraken sea monster has been found in the form of the giant and colossal squids. What’s next?
How is it that such massive creatures have slipped past marine biologists for so long?
More Tales of the Sea
© 2013 Eric Dockett