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Howard's End: Architeuthis

Film Director, Peter Jackson, might describe it as the stuff of nightmares. Boats have simply disappeared, people torn to shreds. Scientists had been searching for it, unsuccessfully, for more than a century. Of all the living things left on earth to discover it is the "Holy Grail." Compared to the dinosaur, it is the next great scientific prize and it lives in the Hokitika Trench just 20 kilometers off the South Island West Coast at depths of 1,000 meters. Scoop's Maree Howard is writing a New Zealand fictional story based on fact about "Architeuthis."

New Zealand scientists say there are known to be two populations of the elusive giant squid in New Zealand. One at the Chatham Rise and the other just off the South Island's West Coast. "We know it's there, but it's elusive," marine scientists say.

A rare egg mass, which could be that of the giant squid, has recently been photographed in the waters off Northland's Poor Knights Islands which has once again set the marine science world alight.

Over the centuries Architeuthis, (pronounced ark-e-tooth-iss) - meaning chief squid in ancient Greek - has been the source of tales of huge deep-sea ogres, including the Kraken.

These were legendary sea monsters off Norway who were of immense size, with terrible grasping arms, thousands of suckers and sharp powerful beaks which could devour its natural enemy, the sperm whale, in minutes.

Even today, sperm whales have been observed to bear the circular scars that the giant squid inflicts with its powerful suckers. Sperm whales have had giant squid in their stomach's, but eyewitness reports prove the whale does not always get to eat the squid. Sometimes, it is the other way around.

Giant squid have been seen to attack a sperm whale in a fight that lasted for four hours, with the squid finally triumphing.

Sometimes, neither triumphs.

Fishermen have found a dead adult sperm whale with a giant squid's tentacle still wrapped around it. When scientists examined the whale, they found the squid's huge head inside the stomach.

In 1753, Erik Pontoppidan Bishop of Bergen, a Norwegian port, described seeing an immense sea-monster "full of arms" that was big enough to crush the largest man-o-war.

Throughout history, sailors have routinely reported giant sea creatures.

During the Second World War a giant squid attacked sailors whose ship had sunk and they drifted in a small lifeboat hoping for rescue. In the middle of the night, a huge tentacle came over the side of the lifeboat and grabbed a sailor. His friends managed to pull it off before it dragged him over the side but the suckers of the tentacle had inflicted huge circular wounds on his chest.

The giant squid is said to have stalked them all night and, eventually, it had its way when it managed to pull another sailor overboard to his death.

In the 1930's, giant squid three times attacked the Brunswick, a Norwegian navy tanker. In each case the attack was deliberate. The squid were said to have pulled alongside the ship, paced it, then suddenly turned and wrapped their tentacles to the hull.

That encounter was fatal for at least one of the squid. They could not get a grip on the ship's steel surface and one was seen to slide off into the ship's propellers. Researchers can only speculate that something about the hull of the ship reminded the squid of their sperm whale enemy.

No one has ever observed the giant squid in its deep-sea habitat despite decades probing the seas' dim recesses in submersibles and camera's attached to diving whales.

Fishermen towing nets through the depths have snagged giant squid on occasion and dead or dying ones have been washed ashore, often eaten by birds and other sea life.

The surprising truth is that even today, not much is known of this deep sea monster.

How it eats and rests, courts and mates, swims and behaves. What is known for certain is that it lives deep in New Zealand waters such as the Hokitika Trench.

The trench starts in a funnel shape 20 kilometres off-shore from Hokitika and ends, no one knows exactly where, in the direction of Australia. Its northern side is a sheer cliff-face, said to be peppered with huge underwater caves, descending more than 1,000 meters to a bottom where sunlight never reaches. Its southern side gradually slopes towards Antarctica.

It is the perfect home for Architeuthis.

Unlike other marine species, Architeuthis does not need community - it roams the sea alone. It has a capacity for violence unknown in other creatures of the deep. It exists simply to survive - and to kill. Peculiarly, in the world of living things, it often kills without need as if nature had programmed it that way.

It has but one enemy - the sperm whale - who always attacks from the surface above. All other creatures in its world, including humans, are its prey.


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