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The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World's Most Elusive Sea Creature by Richard Ellis

Could it be that at this late date there is still an animal on Earth?much less a sixty-foot-long monster with a deadly beak, eyes the size of hubcaps, and fierce talons on the ends of its tentacles?that has eluded the encroaching eye of Homo sapiens? We know of the giant squid through a pittance of washed-up carcasses and from beaks recovered from the stomachs of sperm whales, its only known predator. We've never directly observed them alive, so they remain a mystery. Given how smart smaller octopi and squid can be, one has to wonder if the big-brained giant is avoiding us because it knows better.

Cephalopods are the aliens on Earth. They are the "other" smart creatures; while we people are (according to us, anyway) the valedictorians of the vertebrates, the squid, octopus, and cuttlefish show us that mollusks are fully capable of evolving into soft-bodied, quick-witted competitors.

The most entrancing cephalopods are the giant cuttlefish and the mimic octopus, which are creatures that come with virtual reality as a built-in feature. They can project patterned images on their skin and change shape like a special effect from Industrial Light and Magic. The ultimate cyber fantasy, they communicate with each other and their environment by morphing. I am inconsolably jealous of their abilities.

But their cousin the giant squid is the Zeus of the alien Pantheon. Beginning with Aristotle, Architeuthis has haunted the imagination of mankind. The Sea Monster has remained the embodiment of what we fear and cannot control in the universe. My most happy encounter with a giant squid (dead, fortunately), was with the celebrated new arrival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Through the good graces of Niles Eldridge I was able to arrange a private viewing of said squid for Oliver Sacks as a birthday present. This specimen, described as a baby (a mere 25 feet long), had been trapped in a net by fishermen off the coast of New Zealand. It was kept in a vast stainless steel vat secured by chains and padlocks. A creepier scene than any in the "X-files." The latest thinking is that the specimen is not a baby at all, but a male?and that perhaps only females achieve Brobdingnagian scale. Not Zeus, but the Amazon Queen of the deep!

Richard Ellis has written the definitive giant squid book, achieving a superb blend of scientific reporting and cultural history. If you are suffering malaise because you worry that natural mystery is all but conquered, this is the book for you. Until, that is, someone actually succeeds in seeing a giant squid in action. There are plenty of people trying; in stealthy submarines, or by attaching remote cameras to the backs of sperm whales. This might be your last chance to appreciate an ancient mystery before it is revealed.


ISBN: 0140286764

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