Kraken at 45° South

Since the dawn of civilization, man has filled with monsters, magic and gods that has been beyond the frontiers of his knowledge. The seas and abysses were filled with monsters, tales and legends that were transmitted both verbally and in written form throughout the centuries. Sirens, sea serpents and other creatures haunted the imagination of sailors. Naturally, it was not all imagination, because the depths of the ocean hid (and still hide) amazing animals. Thus, half with fables and half with truths, historical testimonies were left that even today give rise to controversy. One of the most cited examples is the record of Pliny the Elder, who in the book IX of his Historiae Naturalis, reports an unusual story that took place around 150 BC in the Roman province of Betica, in southern Spain today.

The colossal octopus of French malacologist Pierre Denys de Montfort. This creature had apparently attacked a ship off the coast of Angola. This image would later be repeated and become an icon identified with the Kraken. The image was extracted from #bhlMonstersRreal and edited with the online editor ezgif.

According to the words of Pliny the Elder:

Other Things which this Author hath related may seem rather like something monstrous ; for he affirmeth, that at Carteia there was one which used to go from the Sea into their open Cisterns, among their Ponds, and there rob them of their salt Fish ; and this Thievery was so enormous and long continued, that it gat itself the great Displeasure of the Keepers. Fences were erected to stop the Passage, but these it passed over by means of a Tree ; nor could it have been taken but by the Sagacity of the Dogs : for as it was returning one Night, they set upon it on all Sides, and so raised the Keepers, who were affrighted at the strange Sight. For, first of all, it was of unheard-of bigness; then its Colour was covered over with the Pickle, and the Stink was horrible. Who would have looked for a Polypus there, or have known it in such a condition ? They thought they had to encounter with some Monster : for with its terrible Vapour it drove away the Dogs; and with the Ends of its long Tendrils it would lash them ; sometimes with its stronger Arms it knocked them, as with Clubs ; so that it was with Difficulty they were able to kill it with several three-pronged Spears. Its Head was shown to Lucullus, and was as big as a Barrel that would contain fifteen Amphorae ; and its Beards (for I quote the exact Words of Trebius) a Man could scarcely encompass with both his Arms; they were full of Protuberances like Clubs, and thirty feet long. The Cavities or Cups, and hollow Vessels, were like great Basins ; and the Teeth were conspicuous for their size. The Remains were preserved for a Wonder, and weighed seven hundred Pounds.

Excerpt from an English version of Pliny the Elder’s Historiae Naturalis Book IX.
Extract from the Latin version of the book IX of Historiae Naturalis by Pliny the Elder where the story of the Betic Octopus is told (… Lucullo Proconsule Baeticae…). Source: Google Books, Caii Plinii Secundi Historiae naturalis libri XXXVII

Pliny the Elder’s description seems to be taken from a story of H.P. Lovecraft, but the latter would only write his nightmares two thousand years later. The narrative is situated in a well-defined historical context, identified by the data of the proconsul Lucullus (Lucius Licinius Lucullus) and the writer Trebio Nigro (Trebius Niger). The beast weighed about 230 kg and its head had a volume of almost 290 litres, with suction cups of approximately 13 litres of capacity (for conversions from the old Roman units of measurement, visit the web Cultura Clásica). Doing some calculations it turns out that the creature had a very low density, less than that of water, which is 1 kg/litre, but the benefit of the doubt can be given to the notes taken by the witness(es) of that time and to the conversions of the ancient Roman units of measurement to the modern metric system. Regardless of this question, accounts of great sea beasts that threatened navigators would populate the tales of the ancient and medieval world. The record compiled by Pliny the Elder would be heightened several centuries later by the appearance of another beast halfway between reality and legend: the Kraken.

Another ancient drawing that shows a ship being attacked by a giant octopus. Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The kraken is a sea creature from Scandinavian mythology that is commonly described as a type of octopus or giant squid that, emerging from the depths, attacked ships and ate sailors. Originally, this mythological monster did not have a clearly defined form of octopus or squid, until in 1802, the French malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort published his work entitled “Histoire Naturelle Générale et Particulière des Mollusques”. In it he claims there are two types of giant octopus: the kraken octopus, described by Norwegian sailors and whalers in America, and the colossal octopus, which had apparently attacked a sailing ship in Saint-Malo, off the coast of Angola.

Even the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who was the pioneer of the living organism taxonomy, included in the first edition of his Systema Naturae (1735) an animal that he called Zoophyta Microcosmus. He later removed it in the following editions.

It was not until the second half of the 19th century that scientists began to study and discover the truth behind the Kraken myth. Today we learn of the existence of the giant squid or Architeuthis dux, a little known creature due to the great depths at which it lives. The giant squid is the largest living invertebrate known, is exclusively marine and solitary habits, and while it can be found at less than 100 meters deep, is associated with deeper waters, even more than 800–1000 meters. It feeds on fish and other squids using its 2 tentacles, its 8 sucker arms and 2 parrot-like jaws. The (little) known about them has been achieved through the specimens that have been found dead in different places of the world, from the South Seas to the North Atlantic, and from the Pacific to the coasts of Europe. Some specimens of these animals have even been found on the Argentine beaches, more precisely on the coast of Bustamante Bay (Bahía Bustamante), in Chubut, there by the parallel 45º south, and also farther south, near the island of Tierra del Fuego.

Specimen of Architeuthis dux found on the beach of Bahía Bustamante in 1996. Source: INIDEP.

The first record of a giant squid in the Argentine Sea dates from April 2, 1995, and was in the San Jorge Gulf, where a fishing vessel caught a 1.6 m long adult female at a depth of about 70 metres. Just three months later, on 15 July 1995, in the same gulf but on the beach of Bustamante bay (Bahía Bustamante), a young female specimen measuring 1.3 m and weighing 86 kg appeared over a layer of algae. Less than a year later, a new discovery was made in the same area. A young female, 1.94 m long and 180 kg in weight, was found dead at the tide line. Two and three years later, in April 1998 and February 1999, two more females specimens (1.4 and 1.7 m in length, respectively) were caught by trawlers while fishing near Tierra del Fuego, at depths exceeding 200 metres.

Giant squid found on the beach of Bahía Bustamante, April 2008 [image from an advertising brochure of the Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, in Puerto Madryn]
Another view of the squid as it was on the beach at Bahía Bustamante.

The real Kraken, and excuse me for abusing this word but it seems to me the most pertinent, appeared almost ten years after the last giant squid reported in Tierra del Fuego. On April 28, 2008, on the beach in front of the town of Bahía Bustamante, in the bay of the same name, a giant squid of the genus Architeuthis, 5 m long and 220 kg in weight, with a tube just over 2 m long, was found beached. It was found by a local inhabitant, Tito Valdivia, who wrapped it in polyethylene and moved it away from the tide line, to prevent the sea from taking it away and to prevent the remains from being eaten by other animals. The specimen was then transported and preserved in the refrigeration chamber of Harengus, a fishing company in Puerto Madryn, and was later examined in the installations of the CENPAT (National Patagonian Center). At present, it rests in a fish tank with alcohol and water in one of the exhibition rooms of the Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences and Oceanography.

Article from the newspaper El Chubut describing the discovery. The only thing confusing about this matter is the newspaper says that the oceanographic and natural science museum already has a preserved squid, while the museum’s promotional brochure says the specimen on exhibition is the one found in 2008.
The giant squid on exhibition at the Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences and Oceanography (Puerto Madryn, Chubut).
Another view of the giant squid on exhibition at the Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences and Oceanography (Puerto Madryn, Chubut).

In fact, six specimens have been found on the Atlantic coast of Argentina, all of them females, in the period 1995–2008. Four of them in the San Jorge Gulf and two in Tierra del Fuego. Without being a specialist in those that refer to ocean currents and depths, I suppose that the Architeuthis may be more common than expected, and perhaps they are lurking down there, where sunlight does not reach and where the humans do not wander. Unfortunately these animals only show up once they are dead, since they are no longer prone to swimming near the surface. Therefore, we have to wait for the sea to throw another one of these creatures to the shore so that we can once again be amazed at their existence… and to remember that, after all, the Kraken exists.

Front of the Provincial Museum of Natural Sciences and Oceanography (Puerto Madryn, Chubut), where the giant squid found in Bahía Bustamante is exhibited.

[A Spanish version of this article can be found on the blog Bahía Sin Fondo]

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