Squid and ships


Apr 6, 2003
"This creature, like Architeuthis, is probably a deep-water dweller. What earthly—or oceanic—reason would a squid have for attacking a ship?"

Richard Ellis asked that reasonable question in National Geographic's feature, "Colossal Squid Revives Legends of Sea Monsters." TONMO staff memeber Kat Bolstad has already put paid to that article's many inaccuracies and distortions, and cited the acknowledgement on the part of the French yachtsmen that their reported "squid attack" was a hoax.

Whether or not large oceanic squid have "attacked" boats is probably beside the point. Less photographic or physical evidence of such an event, there's little reason to believe that it's a common occurence, let alone evidence of "man-eating" squid plucking sailors from lifeboats. On the other hand, giant squid have been observed from surface vessels (the 1861 Alecton encounter), actively defended themselves against fishermen (1873, Conception Bay, Newfoundland) and collided with moving vessels (the Santa Clara, off North Carolina in 1947).

Then, there are all those "sea serpents." Some of the best known and described encounters involved ships and "serpents" in close proximity. The cryptid seen in 1848 by the crew of the H.M.S. Daedalus passed close to the ship's side and crossed the wake, as did whatever animal was seen by the crew of the H.M.S. Plumper (1848). In 1872, an unknown animal followed a small sailboat in Scotland's Slough of sleat, and again in 1905 a "serpent" followed Maj. General Merriam's sailboat of the Maine coast.

If the notion that these and other "sea serpent" sightings were actually observations of big oceanic squid is accepted, it does raise an interesting question: since many such sightings were made at close quarters from the decks of ships, sightings that involved animals moving quite energetically, why would a healthy giant squid interact with a ship? The collision that ocurred between a GS and the Santa Clara seems even more unlikely; given the vastness of the ocean, and the size of the ship (a Grace Line steamer), the odds of a random collision would seem to be vanishingly small.

If squid occasionally interact with ships, following them, investigating them or grabbing them, what "earthly reason" could they have for doing so? Might the squid "think" that these boats were something else?

I remember seeing a documentary on the Discovery channel a few years ago re: a scientist who said that cephs never attacked people...then they showed a tape of him being mauled by a Humbolt-Current squid, and his interview afterwards where he had changed his mind...do you know the name of that episode? I would love to get it for my permanent collection! I kick myself all the time for not taping it!
The fellow's name was Alex Kerstich; he was filming Humbolts (Dosidicus gigas) at night. Three squid rushed him, and he lost some gear when they grabbed him. Since the Humbolts were feeding on fish at the time, drawn to the scene by lights from the boat (and the camera rig), it was really more a case of generalized aggression than a singling out of humans; the squids let go of Kerstich pretty fast. Scared the crap out of him, though.

I don't know the title of the documentary he was filming for, but I seem to recall that Peter Benchley was involved. "The Last Sea Monster" rings a bell.
that was the one! thanks! being charged by three Humbolts would scare the crap out of anyone, accidental or not...beautiful animals though, aren't they? I will look for that tape...thanks again,
Squid v Boats


Didn't Ellis also speculate that giant squid could be responsible for most sightings of sea serpents on the sea surface, by swimming along with 1 tentacle out of the water! the classic head/neck reports.

Given that this is highly unlikely as most large squid are deep water species, it seems unlikely that his theory is sound.

Ellis has written at length about the serpent/squid hypothesis. You're right to point out that most big teuthids are deep-water species; specimens of Architeuthis brought up in trawl-nets have usually been snagged at a depth of @ 1000m. The recent capture of a Mesonychoteuthis in the Ross Sea took place at the surface, however, as the squid was biting Patagonian Toothfish off of long-lines. The assumption has been made that Archi. would probably appear at the surface only if it were sick or disabled; at depth, Archi's main predator is the sperm whale, but if that relatively weak-bodied animal went higher in the water column it would encounter many more species capable of killing it: big sharks, billfish and other toothed whales. Mesonychoteuthis is much more robust and powerful. Perhaps room for it should be made in the serpent/squid equation.

As for the tentacles, Architeuthis and Mesonycho's tentacles are equipped with suckers and tubercles running the length of their tentacles, enabling the animal to "zip" the two arms together. I'm doubtful that the serpentiform "necks" of sea-serpents undulating above the surface could be a single tentacle of Architeuthis: the tentacle probably isn't solid enough to support the weight of the tentacular club above the surface. Mesonychoteuthis' tentacles are pretty substantial, but I suspect it would still need to keep both tentacles zipped together to generate enough main strength for keeping the clubs above water. This arrangement could also explain the description of sea-serpents with open "mouths:" the "head" might be two clubs spreading apart. (Press your forearms together from elbow to wrist, open your hands a bit, then look at the profile.)

Could be.


Re: Squid v Boats

Yes, Matt, I agree!

PaulM said:
Given that this is highly unlikely as most large squid are deep water species, it seems unlikely that his theory is sound.
In Ellis' defense, I seem to remember him writing that his scenario would apply to dying squid (as Clem points out). That is, based on what I've been told, I agree with you that it would be very unlikely for a healthy squid to be roaming near the surface... but dead/dying giant squid have been captured near the surface, and in such a state, isn't it feasible that they could be partially breaking the surface, with a tentacle raised, with the club resembling a head, and the whole picture resembling a sea dragon to shocked onlookers?

Clem said:

I'm doubtful that the serpentiform "necks" of sea-serpents undulating above the surface could be a single tentacle of Architeuthis: the tentacle probably isn't solid enough to support the weight of the tentacular club above the surface.
That is an interesting speculation... I wonder if Steve or Kat have any thoughts on this (if they're even still reading... :roll: ) I mean, on what do you base this theory, that a squid tentacle does not have the strength to elevate it's arm? Hmm... I suppose if I had a 20-foot arm, I probably couldn't hold it outstretched for very long... (Ok, now I'm certain Steve and Kat are no longer reading :smile: )

Clem, I like the analogy you've applied in your attachment, suggesting that since we believe sharks tend to think of surfers as seals, then why wouldn't Architeuthis or Mesonychoteuthis mistake a boat for a whale, or another squid, or what have you? However, sharks are different, in that they do tend to naturally spend time closer to the surface than giant/colossal squids would seem to. At their normal depths, I don't suspect large squids are seeing much of anything that touches the sun. And is a disabled/dying squid going to have the wherewithal to approach whatever object it might think it sees? In such a state, they're probably relatively listless... which does seem to give credence to your idea that a dying squid may not be able to elevate its tentacle in such a way as to appear as a serpent.

As for Architeuthis and Mesonychoteuthis "zipping" their arms together, we have no evidence of them doing such a thing, as far as I know. This is pure speculation, right Clem? I suppose this is feasible, but isn't it just as feasible (or moreso, despite the "elevation" issue) to imagine that the one flaying tentacle of a dying squid might resemble an "energetic" sea serpent to a terrorized sailor?
Guess I'll come out of hiding then :roll:

It is very unlikely, based on the length and thinness of Architeuthis' tentacles, that it could hold one alone out of the water. There is a remote possibility that the two 'zipped' together (more on this in a minute) could flail out of the water, but a) it would have to be in a very uncontrolled manner, and b) any adult Architeuthis at the surface will be dead or very close to it.
Regarding 'zipping,' functional evidence does point strongly toward it - the tentacles are flattened on the inner surface and each has alternating pairs of suckers and bumps that exactly match up with pairs on the other tentacle. They've got to be grabbing something, and since the suckers align exactly with the bumps, we're fairly confident that the tentacles do lock together.
Were a giant (or colossal) squid to mistake a boat for something else, and thereby be attracted to it, that 'something else' would probably have to be a conspecific - perceiving it as a whale should trigger a 'flee' instinct, and no recognized prey for either species would attain sufficient size to be confused with a boat - even for a squid with 20g of sneeze-for-brains. :smile: So I guess if we saw a male squid of superlative size making passes at a boat (after our initial duck for cover) we could consider the possibility of such cases of mistaken identity fueling sea serpent tales of yore...

Are you familliar with the strange case of the U.S.S.Stein? Check it out, if only to speculate. Something shredded the neoprene cover of the destroyer's sonar dome, leaving chitinous hooks behind. Perhaps a hook-armed squid, believing itself under attack by a booming odontocete?


I am only marginally familiar with the story (is there a link to it somewhere? Couldn't dig anything up on a cursory search) , but I have seen (low-res) images of the barbs that were left behind. They do not resemble any squid hooks / beaks currently recognized; their appearance is more similar to dorsal fin-ray spines or teeth from certain large fish species.
Not that I wouldn't like to see them first-hand... :wink:
Ahh, thanks Kat.

From what I know, the "hooks" couldn't be connected with any known species, fish or ceph. They were discovered when the Stein went into dry-dock in San Diego, following the failure of the sonar unit. It would be nice to think that they're gathering dust on a collection shelf, but they were probably discarded. I'll see what I can turn up, but I suspect the incident will remain in the "lore" category, alongside Octopus giganteus.

Yours truly,

My :twocents:

*sigh* I still think that sea serpents are the ramblings of drunken seamen. To be honest, we humans tend to put images together when we can't really comprehend what it is we're seeing. Hate to take the wind out of the cryptozoological sails, but there's no real reason a squid would hang a tentacle out of the water just for some chap to point it out and say "Avast ye!"

Sea voyages of old were long, monotonous, and played tricks on the mind. Imagine looking out your window and seeing the same expanse for weeks at a time. Any sea beastie is suddenly going to look like a mosasaur, and if said beast looks at you funny, your mind is going to remember it as a fight to the death against a monster with ten heads and forty-one tentacles or something like that. Top that off with a wee bit of the spirit, and you'll have something that makes LSD look like pixy stix.


Sashimi and Nori