Architeuthis Giant Squid Stories

Last night, NHK aired an hour-long program that featured first-ever footage of a living Architeuthis giant squid, filmed from a manned submersible at depth. It was amazing.

For everyone who doesn't live in Japan, Discovery Channel is currently preparing an English-language program about the giant squid that will air on 27 January. Watch it if you can!

Sperm whale family eating Architeuthis giant squid
Sperm whale family sharing a meal of Architeuthis giant squid

Since giant squids are in the news, I thought I'd share some stories from personal experiences with them. While I haven't been fortunate enough to go down in a submersible to see the oversized teuthids in their natural environment (that is so on my bucket list), I have had several encounters with leftover squid parts brought up by sperm whales.

The first was an experience I shared with my friends Douglas, Emily, Julia, and Eric during a trip in 2009 to Ogasawara, the same place where the recent Architeuthis video footage was captured.

After having repeat encounters with a family of sperm whales over several days, we came upon them having a giant squid feast.

The whales could have easily swum away from us, but they chose to swim under and past us, giving us an excellent view. My theory is that they had grown accustomed to our presence over the course of several days, and consequently realised we were no speed demons in the water (such an understatement!) and therefore no threat.

Adult sperm whale carrying giant squid, sperm whale calf following closely
Adult sperm whale carrying giant squid, calf in tow

There was a calf among them, which seemed to remain primarily at the surface or in relatively shallow water while the adults dived deep to forage for food. Given that the adults are more than capable of devouring their prey while at depth, it seems possible that the adults brought the large meal up to the surface to share with the calf, or perhaps as part of the process of weaning it.

This is speculation of course, but it seems logical. In fact, early on during the encounter, we swam through a cloud of thousands of pieces of shredded giant squid. Birds were dive-bombing the area to take advantage of the free bite-sized morsels.

So either the sperm whales were wasting food (highly unlikely in my view), or there was some method to their madness, i.e., showing the calf how yummy oversized calamari is.

351cm segment of an Architeuthis giant squid feeding arm
Measuring a 351cm segment of an Architeuthis giant squid feeding arm
that I recovered after seeing a sperm whale breach

Later during that same trip, I recovered part of a giant squid feeding arm after we saw a sperm whale breach. As we sped along toward where the whale had breached, I heard a scream from my friend Tomoko-san, who was on the top deck.

She was gesticulating to the froth in the wake left by the boat. I couldn't make out a word of what she was saying over the roar of the engines, so it was another case of my time-tested life philosophy of "Act first; Think later."

I grabbed my mask/ fins and jumped in, just in time as a matter of fact. The squid arm was about 10 metres down, sinking back to the murky depths.

As you can see from the photo below, the squid's suckers have sharp, serrated edges. They are made of chitin, and have incredible clinging power. Think evil velcro.

When I dived down to grab the leg, I made the mistake of grabbing a handful of these suckers. The little teeth dug into my skin and held tight. It wasn't too painful, but I had to work the suckers back and forth a bit to dislodge them.

I shudder to think how effective these are when wielded by a living Architeuthis!

Close-up view of the suckers on the tentacular club of an Architeuthis giant squid
Close-up view of the suckers on the tentacular club of an Architeuthis giant squid

Thought I didn't see it happen, I'm pretty certain the breaching sperm whale dropped or dislodged the arm segment. I've seen and photographed squid-arm bits and pieces clinging to sperm whales, so I know it's possible for the suckers to hold fast long after the bulk of a squid has been devoured.

In fact, here's an example!

Sperm whale with squid arm stuck to her face
Sperm whale with squid arm stuck to her face,
with a piece that just dislodged visible behind

I took this photo during a subsequent visit to Ogasawara. Look closely, and you can make out a squid piece clinging to the adult sperm whale's mouth. There's also a chunk that fell off, floating in the blue behind the whales.

I had been swimming along for a good ten minutes with these whales, so I was pretty tired. The dropped squid gave me the perfect opportunity to stop swimming without having it appear to all-concerned like I wussed-out.

Image is everything, after all.

I swam over, reached out to grab the floating squid, then recoiled with lightning speed as soon as I touched it.

The squid was...get, ice cold. The sea was at least 28 degrees Celsius (>82 degrees Fahrenheit), so the incongruous sensation of grabbing a chunk of ice-cold squid was...well...shocking, to say the least.

It only took a second or so for my brain to put two and two together, and realise that it all made sense.

I had watched the adult come up from the depths, where she had, no doubt, been foraging for food. The squid was, in other words, fresh from the freezer of the deep sea.

It had never occurred to me until that point, but it's definitely cold down deep, so it makes sense in a "Doh!" kind of way that a cold-blooded animal that lives at depth would be cold. Still, it was a surprise and a revelation.

ice-cold fragment of Architeuthis giant squid arm
When I grabbed this giant squid arm fragment in the water, it was ice cold.

I could go on and on with more stories, but it's dinner time. So I'll wrap up with this giant squid photo:

Tony Wu and Douglas Seifert with Architeuthis giant squid in Japan
All I can say is, Douglas made me do it

...which shows Douglas Seifert and me engaged in the scientific process of testing whether giant squid is suitable for sushi.

The answer? Nope. Not by a long, long, long shot.