The discovery of the kraken, now called the giant squid, is often cited as a cautionary tale for skeptics who are certain that a particular mysterious beast cannot exist. Until the late nineteenth century, scientists believed that this creature existed only in Nordic legend, where it was described as a many-armed sea monster of such enormous proportions that it was able to pull sailing ships down to the bottom of the ocean. In fact, whenever sailors would claim that they had seen a kraken, scholars would ridicule them.

For example, in 1861, when the captain and crew of a French gunboat, the Alecton, claimed that they had harpooned and killed a kraken near the Canary Islands but had been unable to get the body aboard their ship, members of the French Academy of Science implied that the sailors were liars or fools. Scientists also scoffed at the work of a Danish zoologist named Johan Japetus Steenstrup, who, in 1857, published a supposedly scientific description of a kraken based on an examination of animal parts that had washed up on various beaches.

Then, in the 1870s, several whole creatures fitting his description of the kraken washed up on beaches in Newfoundland and Labrador, and scientists were forced to acknowledge that the kraken was both real and large. One of the Newfoundland creatures was estimated to be 60 feet (18.3m) long and up to 10 feet (3m) across, with tentacles 35 feet (10.7m) long.

Today the kraken remains hard to find, and scientists are still not sure about its behaviour or how big it can grow.


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning

The Bishop of Bergen, Erik Pontoppidan, writing in The Natural History of Norway (1723), told of the largest “Sea-Monster in the world,” the many-armed Kraken. The giant squid—once known as the Kraken—was considered an absurd fiction until indisputable physical evidence of its existence became available in the 1870s. Before then, however, respectable opinion thought Kraken as fabulous a creature as the Merbeings, and those who claimed to have seen it could count on being ridiculed if they took their sightings to scientists.

Scientific investigation of the animal did not begin until the 1840s, when Danish zoologist Johan Japetus Steenstrup took up the subject, looking for reports in printed sources. In an indifferently received 1847 lecture to the Society of Scandinavian Naturalists, he took note of beach strandings of giant squids going back to 1639, when one was found on an Icelandic beach. In 1853, after Jutland fishermen caught and cut up a giant squid (they used the pieces for bait), Steenstrup secured the pharynx and the beak. In a scientific paper published in 1857, he described the remains and gave the giant squid its scientific name, still in use: Architeuthis. Even so, his colleagues remained skeptical, and as late as 1861, when the crew of the French gunboat Alecton encountered and tried to capture a specimen in the Canary Islands, the report was laughed or shrugged off. A member of the French Academy of Sciences thundered that giant squids, along with Sea Serpents, amounted to a “contradiction of the great laws of harmony and equilibrium which have sovereign rule over living nature.”

But in the next decade, after a series of strandings in Labrador and Newfoundland, the sneering stopped. In a particularly crucial incident, a fisherman and his son spotted a giant squid off Great Bell Island, near St. John’s, Newfoundland, in October 1873. They cut off a tentacle ten feet from the body and showed it to Alexander Murray of the Geological Commission of Canada. Murray deduced that the whole tentacle must have been thirty-five feet long and the creature to which it was attached some sixty feet long and five to ten feet across.

More than a century later much remains unknown or obscure about giant squids. Little has been determined about their eating and reproductive habits, for example. A raging controversy, the one of most interest to cryptozoologists, concerns their size. How giant can a giant squid be? A specimen from a New Zealand beach in 1880 measured sixty-five feet, most of that length (up to about forty feet) taken up with tentacles. (All squids, of whatever size, have eight arms and two tentacles.) That is the largest documented specimen, but intriguing eyewitness reports describe squids as long as ninety feet.

A related controversy has to do with the meaning of giant-squid scars on sperm whales. The two sea creatures are enemies and engage in what must be titanic (though seldom witnessed) battles, with squids usually the losers. Some scars are eighteen inches around. Bernard Heuvelmans argues that the “diameter of the largest suckers is one hundredth of the length of the body and the head”; if true, that means staggeringly immense squids lurk in the ocean depths. On the other hand, conservative zoologists argue that scars grow as a whale grows and consequently their size is not a reliable guide. Heuvelmans counters that because they are guarding the young while the adult males do the fighting, “scars are rare on female whales… A baby whale would be kept well away from such huge brutes and, if attacked, would hardly survive.”

Richard Ellis has written the most recent full-scale examination on the Kraken, The Search for the Giant Squid (1998).


The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark

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