12th December 1999

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Tales of the Giant Squid

When the squid sank a schooner

Although Sri Lanka is not normally associated with sightings or strandings of the elusive giant squid, the island does figure in a most mysterious and dramatic encounter between a ship and this awesome creature. It is unfortunate that the facts concerning the encounter in question have never been wholly substantiated. Nevertheless, the corroborated account of the sinking of the schooner Pearl in 1874 appears entirely plausible.

By Richard Boyle

The giant squid, or Architeuthis, symbolises an extraordinary paradox at the dawn of the 21st century. While humankind endeavours to detect signs of life in the solar system and beyond, there is an enormous creature inhabiting the oceans of our planet no living specimen of which has yet been observed by science. It is astonishing that washed up and invariably damaged carcasses have provided the sole clues as to the natural history of Architeuthis. There are no photographs, no moving images. Aptly, it has been tagged as the least known large animal on earth.

It is also the last monster to be conquered. Some 20 metres long, with multiple appendages, arrays of hooks, claws and suction cups, the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, a misplaced parrot-like beak, and the ability to change colour, the giant squid is not only monstrous but essentially alien.

From the kraken of antiquity, with which it has been identified, to the 'Beast' of Peter Benchley's 1991 novel of the same name, the giant squid has been represented as a terrifying monster from the depths. Little wonder that it now lurks in the nether regions of the subconscious.

Back in the mid-19th century, even less was known about the giant squid or calamary as it was often called. The first reliably documented encounter between a ship and a giant squid occurred in 1861 near Tenerife when the French warship Alecton had happened upon one and attacked it with harpoons and guns. One lucky shot hit a vital organ, for the unfortunate creature vomited up blood. The crew threw a noose around it to haul it aboard, but the rope sliced through the soft flesh of the body, and the head and tentacles sank.

In June 1874, reports started to appear in the Indian newspapers about an incident in the Bay of Bengal in which a 150-ton schooner had been attacked and dragged under by a giant squid in full view of a passing ship. Then, a few weeks later on July 4, an account was published in the trustworthy London Times.

"The following strange story has been communicated to the Indian papers," it began.

The first part of the account was by a passenger who had been on board the steamer Strathowen. He reported: "We had left Colombo, had rounded Galle, and were well in the Bay (of Bengal), with our course laid for Madras, steaming over a calm and tranquil sea. About an hour before sunset on the 10th of May we saw on our starboard beam and about two miles off a small schooner lying becalmed. There was nothing in her appearance or position to excite remark, but as we came up with her I lazily examined her with my binocular, and then noticed between us, but nearer her, a long, low swelling on the sea, which, from its colour and shape, I took to be a bank of seaweed.

"As I watched, the mass was set in motion. It struck the schooner, which visibly reeled, and then righted. Immediately afterwards, the masts swayed sideways, and I could clearly discern the enormous mass and the hull of the schooner coalescing - I can think of no other term. Almost immediately after the collision and coalescence the schooner's masts swayed towards us, lower and lower; the vessel was on her beam-ends, lay there for a few seconds, and disappeared, the masts righting as she sank, and the main exhibiting a reversed ensign struggling towards its peak."

The second part of the Times report consisted of the account of the captain of the schooner, James Floyd. He stated that the Pearl - "as tight a little craft as ever sailed the seas" - had left the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius bound for Rangoon with a crew of six and its hold full of ballast. She was due to return to Mauritius with a cargo of rice. On the outbound leg of the journey, the Pearl had put into the port of Galle for water.

According to Captain Floyd, the Pearl left Galle on May 7 and sailed along the south coast of Ceylon. She would have passed the Great Basses lighthouse - an impressive feat of engineering that had only commenced operation the year before - and then headed northeast into the Bay of Bengal towards Rangoon. Three days out of Galle, on May 10, the schooner was becalmed at latitude 8 degree 50 minutes North, longitude 85 degree 05 minutes East. This position is about 170 miles due east of Vandeloos Bay.

Around 5 p.m. on that fateful day, Captain Floyd sighted the Strathowen a few miles off. A short time later, as the Pearl lay becalmed, "a great mass rose slowly out of the sea about half-a-mile off on our larboard side, and remained spread out, as it were, and stationary; it looked like the back of a huge whale, but it sloped less, and was of a brownish colour; even at that distance it looked longer than our craft, and it seemed to be basking in the sun.

"'What's that?' I sung out to the mate. 'Blest if I knows; barring its size, colour, and shape, it might be a whale,' replied Tom Scott; 'and it ain't the serpent,' said one of the crew, 'for he's too round for that 'ere critter.'"

At this point Captain Floyd rushed to his cabin to fetch his rifle. When he returned to the deck he hurriedly took aim at the advancing creature. As it happened there was a Newfoundlander among the crew called Bill Darling who not only knew that it was a giant squid, but also understood that bullets were ineffectual against such soft flesh and merely served to enrage.

Perhaps he had seen a stranded specimen back home (it is significant that Newfoundland had a spate of strandings during this time) or had heard seafarers' tales of an earlier giant squid attack on a ship. In any event, when he saw the captain preparing to fire, Darling held up his hand in warning and exclaimed, 'Have a care, master; that 'ere is a squid, and will capsize us if you hurt him.'

Regrettably, Captain Floyd took no notice of the sailor - with disastrous and tragic consequences. "Smiling at the idea," he candidly related, "I let fly and hit him, and with that he shook, there was a great ripple all round him, and he began to move. 'Out with your axes and knives' shouted Bill, 'and cut at any part of him that comes aboard; look alive, and Lord help us!' Not aware of the danger, and never having seen or heard of such a monster, I gave no orders, and it was no use touching the helm or ropes to get out of the way."

For a ship's captain this is a remarkable public confession. His excuse that he was unable to give orders to the crew "having never seen or heard of such a monster" is lame. It is in such dire circumstances that a captain is expected to make whatever decisions are necessary to save his ship. Instead Captain Floyd allowed Bill Darling to give the vital orders and to rally the crew. He had failed in his duty to his crew - and he knew it.

Captain Floyd continued: "By this time three of the crew, Bill included, had found axes, and one a rusty cutlass, and all were looking over the ship's side at the advancing monster. We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the wake or train might have been 100 feet long.

"In the time I have taken to write this the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another movement, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel and she keeled over; in another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts, Bill screaming 'slash for your lives.' But all our slashing was to no avail, for the brute, holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him; we were thrown into the water at once, and just as I went over, I caught sight of one of the crew, either Bill or Tom Fielding, squashed up between the masts and one of those awful arms."

After a few seconds the Pearl filled with water and went under along with the hapless Bill Darling and Tom Fielding. Captain Floyd and the four surviving crew-members were picked up by the Strathowen. All were eager to tell their rescuers of the horrific experience they had undergone.

According to the passenger quoted earlier, "each narrator had his own version of the story, but in the main all the narratives tallied so remarkably as to leave no doubt of the fact."

Several respected authors have investigated this extraordinary story in England only to discover that there is no record of the Strathowen in Lloyd's Register, at the National Maritime Museum, or with shipping lines and other likely sources. Despite this the marine writer Frank Lane felt confident enough to declare: "The most reasonable explanation seems to be that the account was a report of an actual incident, including the presence on the Pearl of a man from the one place (Newfoundland) where, at the time, giant squids and their behaviour were reasonably well known."

Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea had been published in 1869, and several years later the first English translation appeared. Verne's novel, of course, features an episode in which a giant squid becomes entangled in the screw of the submarine Nautilus, commanded by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. The Nautilus rises to the surface and the hatch is opened in order to repulse the creature. The crew, like that of the Pearl, is compelled to battle the creature with axes. However, unlike his passive counterpart, Captain Nemo is in the forefront of the action:

"Immediately one of those arms slid like a serpent down the opening, and many others were above. With one blow of the axe, Captain Nemo cut this formidable tentacle that slid wriggling down the ladder. Two other arms, lashing the air, came down on the seaman placed before Captain Nemo, and lifted him with irresistible power.

"What a scene! The unhappy man, seized by the tentacle, and fixed to the suckers, was balanced in the air at the caprice of this enormous trunk…Who could rescue him from that powerful pressure? However, Captain Nemo had rushed to the poulp (squid), and with one blow of his axe had cut through one arm. His lieutenant struggled furiously against other monsters that crept on the flanks of the Nautilus. The crew fought with their axes.

"For one instant, I thought the unhappy man, entangled with the poulp, would be torn from the terrible suction. Seven of the eight arms had been cut off. One only wiggled in the air, brandishing the victim like a feather. But just as Captain Nemo and his lieutenant threw themselves on it, the animal ejected a stream of black liquid. We were blinded with it. When the cloud dispersed, the cuttle-fish had disappeared."

Was the newspaper report of the Pearl's sinking an "opportune hoax" in the wake of the publication of Verne's best selling book, as, for instance, claimed the crypto-zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans?

Perhaps more exhaustive maritime research would prove the existence of both the Strathowen and the Pearl, and so solve this intriguing mystery. If it was a hoax the perpetrator missed his vocation, for the report is far more convincingly written than Verne's tale. The details sound credible and true-to-life. Moreover, Captain Floyd's failings are the stuff of reality, whereas the macho deeds of Captain Nemo are the imaginings of the storyteller.

I vaguely remember as a schoolboy reading of the Pearl incident (in an article by the aforementioned Frank Lane) in Animals, a popular magazine of the early 1960s. But it was Arthur C. Clarke who first drew my attention to the subject. That was on reading his book about the Clarke-Wilson expedition to the Great Basses, The Treasure of the Great Reef (1974 edition), in which he devoted a chapter to "Reflections on Squid." Clarke reproduced the Times report and commented: "If you think this is an improbable story, I do not blame you; I would not take it very seriously myself, if it had appeared anywhere except in the shipping column of the Times - a paper not noted for sensational journalism."

In fact Clarke has had a long fascination with Architeuthis. "Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by the giant squid - and I know exactly what triggered my interest," he revealed in the book. "It was the illustration, in Frank Bullen's classic The Cruise of the Cachelot, of a fight between a sperm whale and a squid - which must have taken place incidentally, within a few months of the Pearl report."

Another account of a squid sighting that made an impression on Clarke was that contained in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851). Melville wrote of "A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-colour, floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to catch at any hapless object within its reach. No perceptible face or front did it have, no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct, but undulating there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life."

During the time of the Great Basses treasure hunt, Clarke and Wilson found themselves on board a friend's boat anchored off Pigeon Island, Trincomalee. At night scores of squid swarmed around the boat and Clarke was able to handle one. "It seemed such a pretty, harmless little creature - its rubbery body only six inches long. But then I remembered the Pearl, just 170 miles due east of us, and the Cachalot, 600 miles east of her - and the Pequod (of Moby Dick) perhaps a thousand miles to our south. I looked at the shadows flitting through the darkness around the bright circle of the ship's light; and presently I decided to go down to my cabin, and to secure the porthole lest any 'monstrous arms like trees' came crawling hopefully aboard during the night."

Clarke's fascination with giant squid has often manifested itself in his fiction as well as his more factual writings. For instance, in his short story "The Shining Ones," contained in the anthology More Than One Universe (1962), Clarke wrote of a Swiss engineer who is contracted to repair a damaged hydro-thermal generator located at a depth of 500 fathoms off the coast of Sri Lanka.

The engineer descends in a mini-sub to find that a large section of the heating element of the generator has been torn away. After repairing the damage he spots two comparatively small giant squids communicating with each other - using their light-producing organs, known as photophores, to create images. First he discerns a pattern that resembles a mini-sub, followed by one that looks suspiciously like an enormous squid.

It dawns on him that they have summoned Big Brother. The engineer's last words are, "The thing is absolutely gigan."

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