Giant Squid Washes Ashore In Tasmania

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
July 26, 2002
Earlier this week the largest invertebrate on Earth, an animal that has never before been seen in its native habitat, washed up on the chilly eastern shores of Tasmania, Australia. The giant squid, an adult female, bore the marks of a torrid sexual affair. Sucker marks decorated her neck, and the top of her head bore a nip, possibly from a male's beak. Sperm samples suggest that she may have mated nearby.

"This is very exciting, particularly because this specimen is so incredibly fresh," said David Pemberton, senior curator of zoology at The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in the state capital, Hobart, who is supervising the squid's investigation.

The squid weighs about 550 pounds (250 kilograms) and was found in two pieces on Seven Mile Beach. Though her longest tentacles have been lost, estimates based on her remaining arms suggest she would have been around 50 feet—a little larger than the average giant squid, Architeuthis dux, found to date. She is not, however, a new species.

Though the actual specimen is cause for celebration, it is the possibility of a mating ground nearby that Pemberton finds truly tantalizing. This female squid washed up on July 20. Two others have washed ashore in the same general area in the last 16 years—the first on July 19, 1986 and the second on July 20, 1991.

A Breeding Ground

"That's spooky," said Pemberton, though he offered a possible explanation: The giant squid may have a breeding ground in nearby Storm Bay that they visit annually. Cuttlefish and arrow squid, for example, gather each year in Storm Bay in September and March respectively for "synchronized breeding." Maybe giant squid do the same.

There are indications that this giant squid had recently mated. Scientists found sperm deposits under her mantle—where sperm is stored before fertilizing the eggs.

But, cautioned Clyde Roper, a teuthologist (squid specialist) at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., studies of other squid have revealed that sperm packets or "spermatophores" can remain viable for weeks and sometimes months after mating. So there is no guarantee that the meeting of the sexes took place nearby, or even recently.

Regardless, "Tasmania is turning out to be a hot spot for giant squid," said Pemberton. And that's good news for squid seekers. Roper concurred. "Actually, the whole region—the band of ocean stretching from New Zealand's South Island to Tasmania and into the waters south of Australia—is a hot zone," said Roper, who has led three expeditions since 1996 to hunt for Architeuthis.

In the last 20 years, more than 100 giant squid have been hauled up by vessels in the waters off the coast of New Zealand's South Island, and Roper estimated that around 35 specimens have been found in south Australian waters.

A Creature of Mythic Proportions

What little is known about the giant squid is based on the mangled remains of dead animals caught in fishermen's nets, decayed specimens washed ashore, and the indigestible giant squid beaks found in the stomachs of sperm whales—a natural predator, and one of the few animals large enough to tackle the giant squid. Given this, every new specimen is regarded as a blessing from Neptune.

The giant squid has always enjoyed a reputation of mythic proportions. The notorious squid in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was surely based on the giant squid: "It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long…It gazed with enormous, staring eyes…Its eight arms…like the serpentine hair of the Furies…The monster's mouth—a beak made of horn and shaped like that of a parrot…Its tongue…armed with several rows of sharp teeth…What a freak of nature! A bird's beak on a mollusk!"

Search for the Giant Squid

Mesmerized by such descriptions the scientists have tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find the haunts of the elusive creature.

In 1996 during an expedition to the Azores scientists attached a "Crittercam"—a specially designed video camera invented at National Geographic—to a sperm whale, hoping that the whale would guide them to the squid. The second expedition in 1997 was conducted in the Kaikoura Canyon in New Zealand—a spot where immature male sperm whales hang out and eat giant squid until they are ready to command a harem. During this expedition the Crittercam was mounted on the nose of an autonomous unmanned vehicle that captured some spectacular whale behavior, but no squid. In 1999 Kaikoura Canyon was again the target of another mission, this one with a deep-sea submersible that Roper piloted to search for the squid.

"It is definitely frustrating, because I would love to find Architeuthis and film it," said Roper. "But it's not surprising. Over 99 percent of the living space on Earth is in the oceans and we would have had to be phenomenally lucky to find it."

"This is part of a much bigger quest. It is not about instant gratification. It is exciting that there are still these mysteries to be probed and explored," Roper said.

As for the giant squid that washed ashore this week, it's unclear how she died. Pemberton said she appeared plump and strong with no marks from fishing gear or propellers. But, he added, giant squid have relatively short lifespans—about five years. "Her time may simply have been up."

Liquid Planet Resources

A. Animals and Nature


Online Jellyfish Forecast Warns Chesapeake Swimmers
South Africa Sardine Migration Draws Crowds
Was this Earth's First Predator?
Was the Humble Sponge Earth's First Animal?
Tiny Mandarin Fish Reveal Surprisingly Complex Mating Ritual
Scientists Mount Assault to Save Endangered Right Whales
Scientists Track Giant Sunfish by Satellite
Right Whales Get Boost from U.S. Navy

National Geographic Animals and Nature Guide: Go >>

Interactive Feature: National Geographic's World of the Crocodilians

B. Sharks

Follow the progress of this National Geographic expedition to the Florida Keys:
Expedition Report One: Scientists Study Nurse Shark Mating Habits
Expedition Report Two: Researchers Tag Sharks to Study Breeding Habits
Expedition Report Three: Crittercams Provide Insights into Nurse Shark Behavior
Jaws Author Peter Benchley Talks Sharks
Do Hammerheads Follow Magnetic Highways in Migration?
Shark Nursery Yields Secrets of Breeding
South Africa Rethinks Use of Shark Nets
Sharks Falling Prey to Humans' Appetites
Satellites Clear Up White Shark Mysteries
Are People Eating Sharks Out of Existence?

Shark Sites on
Creature Feature: Great White Sharks
Ten Cool Things That You Didn't Know About Great White Sharks
Print 'N' Go Coloring Book: Great White Sharks
Shark Surfari: Online Quiz

Related Lesson Plans:
Lesson Plan: A Trip to the Beach
Lesson Plan: Are Sharks As Dangerous As We Think They Are?
Lesson Plan: Does the Hammer Help?
Lesson Plan: Sharks—Setting the Record Straight
Lesson Plan: Sharks—Should They Be Afraid of Us?
Lesson Plan: What's the Hammer For?

C. Archaeology and Paleontology


JFK's PT-109 Found, U.S. Navy Confirms
New Fossil: Link Between Fish and Land Animals?
Ancient Walking Whales Shed Light on Ancestry of Ocean Giants
New Underwater Finds Raise Questions About Flood Myths
Floods Swept Ancient Nile Cities Away, Expert Says
Scientists Prepare to Open Civil War Sub
Human Remains Found in Civil War Submarine Hunley
Curious Find on Confederate Sub Links North and South
Captain's Remains Found in U.S. Civil War Submarine
Captain's "Lucky Coin" Found in Civil War Submarine
U.S. Civil War Sub "Photo" Disproved as Image of Captain
Forensic Team Studying Skeletons of Hunley Crew
Journals of Captain Cook Go Online

Interactive Feature: Black Sea @

D. Environment


Maryland Suffers Setback in War on Invasive Walking Fish
Study Calls Into Question Global Quotas on Bluefin Tuna
Expedition Reveals Black Coral's Bleak State
Artificial Reefs: Trash to Treasure
Hermaphrodite Frogs Caused By Popular Weed Killer?
Overfishing Long Ago Tied to Modern Ecosystem Collapse
Caviar Crisis Spurs Caspian Sea Summit
Despite Predictions, Viagra Hasn't Stemmed Trade in Threatened Wildlife
Raw Human Waste Killing Off Coral Reefs?
Is Bleaching Coral's Way of Making the Best of a Bad Situation?
Artificial Reefs: Trash to Treasure
World Has Enough Water for All, Experts Say—But Only if People Pay

E. Geography


Rotten-Egg Gas Suffocating Fish Off African Coast
Coral Reef Paradise Found in Remote Indonesian Islands
Iceland Lake Disappearing Into New Crack in Earth
Inner Earth May Hold More Water Than the Seas

National Geographic Magazine: Deep Sea Vents: Science at the Extreme

F. Lesson Plans

Bob Ballard (Undersea Exploration):

Grades 3-5: Ocean Exploration Museum
Grades 9-12: The Science of the Deep Sea

David Doubilet (Oceans and Photography) Lesson Plans:
Into the Ocean
Using Photography to Help Save the Ocean
Ocean Conservation: Getting the Word Out With Photographs
What's Wrong With the Oceans? Can Photography Help?

Grades K-2: What Are Manatees?
Grades 6-8: Working Together for the Manatee

Right Whales:
Grades K-2: Right Whales and People
Grades 9-12: The Best Hope for Northern Right Whales

Aquarium vs. Natural Environments:
Grades 3-5: Aquarium Habitats

Artificial Reefs:
Grades 9-12: The Pros and Cons of Artificial Reefs

Grades K-2: Alligators and Crocodiles
Grades 3-5: What Did They Eat?
Grades 6-8: Crocs, Then and Now
Grades 9-12: Survival of the Fittest?

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.