Is the giant octopus fact? Or just Hollywood fiction?
by Mark K. Bayless
Some months ago, while recuperating from an illness, I was watching a sci-fi B-movie titled It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). This classic 1950s atomic-age monster movie got me thinking. “What if a giant octopus really does exist, living beneath the sea?” What do we know of this virtually unknown titan of the depths? Is it fact or just good Hollywood science fiction? Here is what I found out.
The sea is full of wonders, mysteries,and unknowns, and probably always will be. Oceanographers are learning about cur rents and plate tectonics beneath the abyssal plains; marine geologists are discovering more and more about the geothermal vents found throughout the oceans; and marine biologists are still seeking out what lives in the deepest of our oceans, including the elusive giant squid and other invertebrates that may dwell at these depths.
We know that some invertebrates do reach great size. The giant killer clam (Tri dacria gigas), a mollusk of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, can reach 700 pounds in weight and is reputed to have held divers to their deaths with their feet trapped in its mighty vise-like shell.
Another invertebrate, a 40-foot-long, eel-like transparent acorn worm, or jelly comb ctenophore (pronounced “teeno four”), was observed during the week of August 14, 1963, off the New Jersey coast by Dr. Lionel Walford, a biologist. This ctenophore was reported to be a sea serpent but was properly identified by cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson in the January 1964 FATE. Many benign, plankton eating oceanic invertebrate (and vertebrate) animals can reach great size, such as the giant clam, acorn worm, giant squid, manta-ray, whale shark, and baleen whales. However, not all giant marine animals are harmless plankton-eaters.
Dr. Karl Shuker tells of the giant lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) reported in 1865 to reach seven feet in diameter More recent was the incredible 1973 en counter of the sailboat Kuranda, which collided with a lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea arctica ) of 20 tons with tentacles stretching 120 feet! Miraculously, only one man was hurt when he came into contact with one of the numerous stinging tentacles. Shuker also relates the incident of a giant jellyfish, probably also a Cyanea, ingesting a large shark. However, most jellyfish do not attain such great size.As Richard Conniff says,”…these gelatinous animals may be the ocean’s most efficient and beautiful predators.”
The Giant Squid
The most elusive known creature of the seas today is not the whale, shark, or even jellyfish, but one surrounded in fictional sea lore, and very real: the giant squid (genus Architeuthis).Giant squid may reach lengths of 50 feet and weigh 2,000 pounds. Though most squid reach only one to three feet in length, people are most familiar with the giant squid, as depicted in Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; Peter Benchley’s The Beast; John Wayne’s death scene in Reap the Wild Wind (1942), and most recently in Richard Ellis’ The Search for the Giant Squid.Someday, if we are lucky, we will actually film a living giant squid in its ocean realm.
A relative of giant squid, which also has eight tentacles, is jet propelled, is very in telligent, and is in the class Mollusca, fam ily Cephalopoda (“head-foot”), is the oc topus. Maybe, just maybe, there is also a truly giant octopus as well.
Dr. Richard Ellis has attributed most, if not all, of the giant octopus stories to giant squid. One factual event involving giant squid is as follows:
Following the sinking of his troop ship Britannia,Lt. R. E. G. Cox was clinging to a small raft with 11 other men when sud denly one soldier was grabbed and pulled beneath the waves, never to be seen again. Moments later, Cox felt a tentacle on his leg, and with great pain and agony felt the strength of this great beast upon his per son. Suddenly, the squid released his grasp, leaving a few scars behind.Dr. John Cloud sley-Thompson told me of his meeting with Cox:
“I met him at the Royal Armored Corps firing range at Homsey, Yorkshire, whilst I was an instructor in Tank Gunnery at Sandhurst in 1943 while recovering from a severe wound received at the Knights bridge tank battle in Libya, 1942. He told cause he was always playing pranks.So he showed me a spread [newspaper clipping] from the Illustrated London News [Nov. 1, 1941] to prove it! He also showed me scars on his leg which were about the size of an English penny in those days, and rings about six inches apart.”
There are a few authentic and chilling accounts of giant squid attacking and sometimes killing humans at sea. Are there any such accounts for the supposed giant octopus?
The answer is yes.
The Giant Octopus Attacks
“Survivors Say Giant Octopus Overturned Boat in Philippines
“MANILA-Survivors of a Christmas Eve sea accident in the southern Philip pines said yesterday that they were attacked by a giant octopus that overturned their motorized canoe.
“Fishermen on Monday found 12 survivors clinging to the overturned craft and recovered the body of of a 2-week old boy off Manticao, 17 miles from where the accident took place.
“All the survivors suffered from severe sunburn but none was seriously hurt, said Manticao Police Corporal Samuel Cabasan. “The Philippine Navy and Coast Guardheadquarters in Manila said they had not Iligan Bay, about 490 miles southeast of the capital.
“‘Suddenly, the waters began to bub ble;said survivor Agapito Caballero.’Then with the use of flashlights, we saw some thing that looked like a giant octopus. It was as huge as an imported cow.’
“Caballero’s brother, Alfredo, whose baby boy died, said the octopus grabbed the vessel’s pontoons and overturned it. But the octopus submerged after the attack and did not harm them, he added” [San Francisco Chronicle, December 27, 1989].
The Manticao octopus could have come from the Marianas Trench, which ex ceeds 36,000 feet. The Philippine Trench is nearly as deep, at 34,650 feet below sea level. Nobody knows what lives in deep trench regions.
There are actually quite a few accounts of large or giant octopi attacking men and/or their ships. In Richard Ellis’ Mon sters of the Sea (1994), Dr. Thomas Beale, surgeon on the British whaler Kent in 1831-32, recounts his encounter with a large octopus while ashore in the Bonin Is lands (south of Japan). This octopus was on the beach near some rocks when he approached it. Dr. Beale placed his foot upon the mollusk, whereupon the octopus grabbed Dr. Beale’s arm and the tug of war ensued. The captain of the Kent, also looking for shells on the beach, came to Dr. Beale’s rescue, and soon dispatched the huge octopus with a knife. Dr. Beale was the aggressor; the octopus was only defending itself, especially since it was beached. Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea (1866) comes to mind, with the heroic Gilliat fighting a mighty octopus to the death in a cave.
And, as Forest Wood recounts in Michael Bright’s There are Giants in the Sea (1994):
“They were off Andros Island in about 180m [ 540 feet] of water fishing for silk snappers when his father thought he had snagged the bottom. But then they dis covered that the line could be slowly drawn up. As it came nearer to the surface, they peered through the crystal-dear water and could make out the shape of a gigantic octopus. Suddenly, the animal detached itself from the line and clung to the bottom of the boat. Then, much to the occupants’ relief, it let go and returned to the depths.”
Another incident described by Bright involved Bermuda fisherman John (Sean) Ingham, who was searching for new deep water fishing grounds off the continental shelf. He began at 11,400 feet (1,900 fath oms), on to depths of 4,800 feet. His crab traps were coming up totally smashed. In gham reports, “We had seen a large shape close to the trap and at first thought it was a large mass of crabs moving towards the bait, but when the boat started to move I knew it couldn’t be the crabs. We were over a rocky bottom and could see this thing on sonar moving from rock to rock-and then it released the trap:’
Conger eels (Conger oceana) feed on crabs, but the dimensions reported by Ing ham’s Bermuda mystery beast excludes these animals entirely, as they only reach just over three feet in length. However, there are numerous stories of lusca and scuttle (local names for octopi or octopus-like creatures) and giant octopus in blue holes in Bermuda and the Bahamas.
In the Mediterranean, as noted by Jacques Cousteau in Three Adventures (1973) and Odopus and Squid (1973), both shellfish and octopi are much larger there than reported elsewhere–and so are white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).Why, exactly, remains a mystery.
The Sinking of the Pearl
One of the most tragic events at sea in volved the 150-ton schooner Pearl, cap sized and sunk in the Bay of Bengal in 1874 by a giant octopus-Octopus giganteus. Al though the culprit in the attack of the Pearl is identified by Bernard Heuvelmans in In the Wake of the Sea Serpents ( 1968) and in Richard Ellis’ The Search for the Giant Squid, as a giant squid (Architeuthis), the recollections of witnesses better describe a gigantic octopus.
Many giant squid have been either captured at sea in fishermen’s nets or beached, in accounts ranging from the Danish zoologist Johan Steenstrup’s observations of a giant squid in 1857 to the present day. But have any giant octopi ever been found and properly identified as such?
The answer is yes. Giant octopi, both dead and alive, have been reported and photographed. Hans Hass in Diving to Ad venture (1952) describes an octopus with tentacles 11 feet in length. Frank Lane, in Kingdom of the Odopus (1960), also depicts a very large octopus.
But octopi don’t just go after crab traps in the Bahamas or Bermuda. In July 2001, at Anchor Bay on California’s Mendocino coast, 11 miles south of Point Arena, Lenny Suokko brought up an octopus (Octopus dofleini) while pulling up crab traps. It weighed 40 pounds and had tentacles ten feet long . He had it in a net on the beach, but it worked its way out and back into the ocean-no doubt it wanted to have its crabs. Mrs. Gerry Eagan told me that Anchor Bay had never seen such a large octopus. (I have been vacationing in Gualala/ Anchor Bay since 1967 and have seen only one tiny octopus in a tide pool in all these years.)
The Pacific Octopus
But larger octopi are known. The giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) is currently recognized as the largest in the world. Dr. Cosgrove states, “It seldom exceeds 100 pounds but even that is a very large animal. The largest I have ever seen and measured was 156 pounds (wet weight) and measured slightly more than 20 feet across.”
Clayton Fischer told me that he and his dive master, John Lachelt, videotaped a very large octopus measuring 21 feet and weigh ing 200 pounds that resides in a cave 45 feet deep in an area just off Juneau, Alaska, called the Shrine of St. Theresa (see www.delpion.com). Both Lachelt and Fischer state emphatically it is always there and does not bother divers if they leave it alone.
As Dr. Murray Newman recounts in The History of the Vancouver Aquarium (1993), “In March, 1956, Jock [MacLean] said he came upon a huge octopus and managed to get under it in such a way as to fill its umbrella with air from his breath ing equipment. This caused the animal to rise to the surface where it was gaffed and dragged on board the boat. Measured dead it was 28 feet across from the tip of one to the tip of the opposite one. It weighed 437 pounds and completely filled a 45 gallon barrel. In March, 1957, he came upon an even larger specimen just 10 to 20 feet from the location of the previous capture. It measured 32 feet across and had an estimated weight of 600 pounds.”
Dr. Newman wrote most of the Van couver Aquarium guide books throughout his curatorship there. He reports: “Jock MacLean is our authority of the lair and habits of the octopus. They live in colonies or ‘beds;as he calls them, which are usu ally where rocks come near mud, not over clean sand substrates. The colonies are sep arated and often suitable habitat is not oc cupied by octopuses.. .the very large oc topuses, however are not usually found in dens but lurk on the bottom in the vicinity of the smaller specimens upon which they feed. Pursuing the elusive giant: We have good reason to believe that the Pacific octopus grows to great size and far exceeds the size of the sixty and seventy pound specimens that we have had in our aquarium.”
Huge Octopus in Solomons
Fellow amateur cryptozoologist Nick Sucik sent me the following news clipping:
“MAKIRA, SOLOMON ISLANDS-A huge octopus believed to be the biggest ever seen in the country was found dead near Parego village, Haununu district, West Makira [approximately l0°S and 161°E in the Solomon Islands].
“Eyewitnesses say the octopus’ tenta cles were as big as 20 litre kerosene drums [which have a diameter of about a foot].
“They say the octopus died last month and is still rotting on a reef near Parego village.
“They say before the octopus’ tentacles were found, the reef on which the octopus died was covered in black liquid released by the dying octopus.
“Villagers who have seen the octopus have described it as the biggest octopus they’ve seen in their lives.
“The villagers are puzzled at what caused the octopus to swim to shallow waters to die” [Solomon Islands Broadcast ing Corporation, May 6, 2001].
Sucik sent me the following article on the giant Hawaiian octopus of July 1936:
“Giant Octopi Discovered in Local Water?
“Mr. Robert Todd Aiken claimed to have found a school of six large sea denizens, according to Mr. Aiken, who made the trip to Hawaii expressly to photograph the colony of octopuses. The largest octopus officially measured around 17 feet but Mr. Aiken says his specimens are all of 40 feet. Octopuses are found in water 30-40 fathoms deep; however they are attracted to the surface largely by their mortal enemy, the shark” [Honolulu Ad vertiser, July 27, 1936].
Octopi of such size have never been reported in print elsewhere. Aiken says he filmed this huge carcass. It would be very valuable to zoology to find and review this film clip. I am surprised no one else has examined this incident in more detail. There is also a report from the Honolulu Advertiser dated May 14, 1997, that giant octopi come to Hawaii one month of the year. One such octopus was seen near the sea turtle nesting grounds (perhaps the Pacific green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas). To my knowledge, this has never been examined with scientific scrutiny. It may be worth while to check out these observations.
The late Dr. Archie Carr reports in his classic So Excellent a Fishe (1967): “Huge nesting colonies of sea turtle have been wiped out in Florida, the Bahamas, Ber muda, Cape Verde islands and in the Hawaiian Archipelago;’ the same places that giant octopi have been found, or sus pected to be (i.e., St. Augustine blob in Florida; lusca in Bermuda; 1936 Aiden Hawaiian octopus). Could the elusive giant octopus be a sea turtle predator? On Mokil Atoll, in the Caroline Islands, Bentzen (1949) observed octopi living in sand bur rows, and nearby, the nesting and hatch ing grounds of the green sea turtle (Che lonia mydas ).What would a giant octopus eat? Octopi do combat with sharks. They are enemies to one another, and sharks may also be a possible food source for the octopi, giant or otherwise. Hollywood depicts such a battle between octopi and shark in another atomic-age sci-fiB-movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Octopi also feed upon crustaceans (shellfish), crabs and lobsters, fish, and each other. A giant octopus would probably prey on larger forms of the same diet as smaller ones do.
Globsters and Blobsters
Now we come to the topic of globsters and blobsters-mysterious, amorphous creatures, generally dead, rotting, and stink ing to high heaven. One of the strangest such varmints was found in August 2001 washed up on a Newfoundland beach. The 23-foot-long thing was estimated to weigh at least three tons. It appeared to have a backbone and ribs, but no head. The most disturbing thing about it was the coarse white hair all over its body.
Mysterious hunks of dead but uniden tifiable flesh, some with tentacles, have been found washed up on the beaches of the world at least since 1896. They resemble nothing so much as huge piles of tapioca pudding with a few animal or fish-like fea tures, such as rudimentary fins, flaps of flesh-blasphemous, eldritch, fetid things worthy of the best otherworldly horror fic tion of H. P. Lovecraft.
Are they octopi, shark, or whale tis sue (blubber)? The consensus is that the 1896 St. Augustine, Florida, blob (which Dr. A.J. Verrill first thought to be an octopus); the 1960 Tasmanian globster; and the 1988 Bermuda blob were octopi.It was noted that none of these two blobs and one glob had any distinctly offensive odor to them at all. Numerous other blobsters and globsters have been examined and turned out to be rotting basking sharks, whales (i.e., blubber, such as the 1997 Tasmanian globster), and beaked whale carcasses. I have seen basking shark and whale carcasses, and do they stink!
However, there are over a dozen blobs and globs that require further scientific ex amination. Dr. Sidney Pierce, in his 1995 study, examined tissue of the St. Augustine and Bermuda blobsters with chemical analysis and electron microscopy and con cluded that these two blobsters are whale blubber. To me, the data Pierce presents is not conclusive one way or the other. Where and why do these giant octopi die before they are found washed up on beaches, reefs, and in shallow waters? It is known that Octopus dolfeini females mate, lay their eggs only once, and then die. Could the giant octopi be females dying off following their egg-laying duties?
After reading Dr. A. J. Verrill’s origi nal texts of the St. Augustine globster, the Tasmanian globster, and Bermuda blob ster, Frank Lane’s Kingdom of the Octopus, Jim Moore’s accounts, and the others pre sented in this article, the circumstantial ev idence leads me to the following conclu sions:
- Megafauna are discovered annually, many from the sea (i.e. whales, sharks, ben thic fish).
- The unrelated anecdotes and stories corroborate details of the natural history of giant octopi, even by those persons not familiar with them.
- Gigantism is not new to marine mollusks, cephalopods, fish (sharks), reptiles(sea turtles), or mammals (whales).
- The majority of the sea abyss and benthic life within it is virtually unknown, especially of octopi.
- 5. No conclusive data has been written to absolutely disprove the existence of Oc topus giganteus. I believe they Do you?
Mark K. Bayless is a student of cryptozoology, herpetology, and ethology. He has written for academic journals, magazines, and newsletters on the subject of monitor lizards, marine mammals, sea life, and other natural wonders. He resides in Berkeley, California.