Giant Squids

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Area(s) Reported: Oceans
Date(s) Reported: Timeless

Perhaps the most terrifying of maritime images is that of the attack of a gigantic squid upon a ship. Many illustrations have been created that show a humongous squid bubbling up out of the ocean, tentacles first, wrapping its great limbs around an imperiled ship with the clear intent of sinking it.

This has likely never actually happened, of course... however, there are squids of a gigantic size, and they have attacked boats.

A continuing major goal for many marine biologists worldwide is to observe giant squids ― known scientifically as 'Architeuthis' ― in their natural environment, which is no easy feat. No other animal of their size is so little understood or known, which is not a surprise; they spend their lives mostly hidden away under the seas and, until relatively recently in history, there was very little evidence they actually existed.

Reports of giant squids from the distant past are cloaked in myth and folklore. For example, it is often noted by modern authorities that the earliest known mention of a giant squid was by Pliny the Elder [23-79 CE], Roman author of the thirty-eight volume Natural History, who noted a specimen that weighed around 700 pounds and had tentacles thirty feet long, which is impressive. What tends to not be mentioned by these same authorities, however, is that Pliny also tells how this squid was habitually coming out of the ocean to steal salted fish set out to dry; and Pliny even claimed that the squid climbed a tree to get past spikes put in its way, and that it was finally killed by a group of men and dogs in a fierce battle on land. So Pliny’s squid is not a valid report of an actual giant squid; it's just the first known mention of the animal.

Other attempts to find ancient tales of the giant squid have led to mis-identifications, such as equating the giant squid with the legendary beast of Norway called the “Kraken.” The Kraken was an enormous sea creature that could be mistaken for an island... but an enterprising Frenchman named Pierre Denys de Montfort [1766–1820 CE] claimed in an 1801 book that the stories of the Kraken were actually tales of a giant octopus (later changed to a squid). This identification was partly accidental and partially purposeful, as Montfort truely believed giant octopai existed, but also knew full well the Kraken was not one. So again, the tales of the Kraken are not valid reports of giant squids despite how often modern movies and stories use the name "Kraken" to mean that.

The Real Monster

The best actual evidence for the existence of the giant squid are carcasses of these animals that washed ashore on the beaches of Newfoundland in the 1880’s, one of which was 55 feet long... but many people believed the squids could get much larger than that.

Squid vs Whale

This belief came from examinations made of the skin of sperm whales, which eat giant squids. Almost all sperm whales sport large circular scars left by squid tentacles; this is because a squid’s tentacles are covered by suction cups that also have claws in them, which can tear a circular chunk of skin out of anything the squid grabs. Based on the size of these sucker marks, some estimates claim giant squids can grow to be between 160 and 246 feet long!

But don’t panic; these calculations largely forgot that if a whale received a scar while young, the circular mark continues to grow as the whale does... making the final scar much larger than what a giant squid might actually leave, and therefore making some of the gigantic sizes reported more than questionable.

Most scientists who study the giant squid now stick to the more reasonable estimate of 60 feet for its greatest size. These monstrous squids are rarely seen because they dwell near the bottom of the ocean; but they do on rare occasions come to the surface.

The Giant Squid Attacks

On the day of October 26, 1873, a fisherman named Theophilus Picot was off the southeastern tip of Newfoundland when he saw a large object, bigger than his boat, floating in the water. Curious, he rowed closer and poked it with a boat hook... and the giant squid sprang to life, attacking his boat.

Picot Fights the Squid

Picot fought to escape; when he managed to hack off a tentacle with an axe, the squid quickly swam away leaving the sea black with ink. Based on both Picot’s observations of the squid and the size of the severed tentacle (nineteen feet!), the squid was estimated to have been around sixty feet long.

Finding a squid motionless at the surface of the ocean is very unusual behavior for the animal, unless it is already wounded or dying. The squid didn’t attack until Picot poked it; so the beast may have felt it was attacked first, and simply defended itself... but there is a claimed case of a direct attack by a squid.

In 1942, during the second World War, Lt. R.E. Grimani Cox and twelve other sailors were on a life-raft in the ocean after their ship was sunk by a German raider. For days they were harassed by sharks; but on the fifth day, these toothsome terrors left for no apparent reason. shortly thereafter the reason became strangely clear, as a large, dark mass appeared in the water under the raft... and then a tentacle reached out of the sea and snatched a man off of the fragile island of safety.


Shortly after, another tentacle reached out and wrapped itself around Lt. Cox; luckily, his shipmates grabbed him as soon as they saw the new threat return. The tentacle tore at Cox with its toothy suckers, leaving inch-and-a-quarter circular scars on his right leg and body for the remainder of his life... but that was a small price to pay to escape from the squid and to eventually be rescued.

More Recent Encounters

During its maiden voyage in 1970, the USS Stein had a sudden failure of its anti-submarine sonar equipment. When the ship put in for repairs, it was discovered that the rubber skin over the sonar was covered by scratches, the longest being four feet in length. At the bottom of each scratch was found an enormous claw, similar to those in a small squid’s suction cups... but much larger. The evidence was clear: the ship -- specifically the sonar -- had been attacked by a giant squid. The reasons why are still unknown.

In 2003, the French vessel Geronimo was temporarily slowed while participating in the “Jules Verne Trophy” race when a giant squid grabbed onto the boat just off the coast of the Portuguese island of Madeira; alarmed, the crew brought the boat to a stop, while wondering how they were going to fight the squid off. Luckily, once the boat stopped, the squid let go and swam away. It was estimated to be about eight meters long (around twenty-six feet). Unfortunately, no one took a picture of the squid; fortunately, the squid wasn't interested in causing any further trouble!

These surface attacks are rare and likely due to the giant squids mistaking ships for either a predator to be fought or prey to be eaten.


As humans travel deeper into the oceans of the world, and encroach into the hunting grounds of these beasts, these attacks may become more frequent... let’s hope the squids don’t develop a taste for the human invaders!

See also: The Kraken
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  • Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, by Simon Welfare & John Fairley, intro by Arthur C. Clarke, 1981 A & W Visual library, New York, NY, USA. ISBN: 0-89104-268-7 pg. 71-77. Online [snippet view]: Click here!
  • "Monsters of the Deep," episode of Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, TV Series, first air date: September 9 1980, Yorkshire Televsion, England.
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  • Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, des mollusques, by Pierre Denys de Montfort, 1801 Defart, France. Online [in French]: Click here!
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  • Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History, Vol. XVI, 1873-1874, Letter from Alex Murray, 1873, pg. 161-163. Online: Click here!

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