Kraken: The Sea Monster That Swallows Boats

The creature of the Nordic sagas feared by sailors from around the world could be an elusive giant squid of up to 14 meters in length that lives in the depths of the ocean

A Fearsome Beast

The sailors explained exaggerated stories about encounters at sea with octopuses and squid tens of meters long, capable of swallowing a boat. In General and particularly natural history of the mollusks (1801), Pierre Denys Monfort recounted the attack suffered by a French boat on the coasts of Angola and included this drawing that recreated the scene, according to the explanations of the sailors.

Giant Squid Fishing

The definitive proof of the existence of squid of enormous dimensions occurred in 1861 when the Alecton steamer met one of them in the waters of Tenerife. His captain tried to get on board the beast, six meters long. He was not successful, but after hours of struggle, he was left with a fragment of the cephalopod that he brought to Paris, along with his account of the event.

The Devil’s Whale

Medieval bestiaries spoke of colossal creatures, so large that they were confused with islets by sailors. This 16th-century engraving, included in the History of Animals, by Conrad Gessner, shows some unsuspecting sailors making a fire over one of these mythical animals called the devil’s whale.

Eric Pontoppidan

In 1752, the bishop of Bergen wrote a  Natural History of Norway in which he spoke of the Kraken, “a beast of a mile and a half in length, which if it caught the largest warship, would drag it to the bottom”

Giant Squids in Asturias

Giant squids are found in the extreme depths of the Bay of Biscay. The Asturian sailors and fishermen are so accustomed to seeing them in their waters that they have even put a common name, peludines. Some workers move the corpse of a giant squid stranded on the coast of Luarca, Asturias.

Giant squids in Asturias

Kraken: The Sea Monster That Swallows Boats

In the Nordic sagas and chronicles of the Middle Ages, a terrifying sea monster the size of an island is mentioned, which moved across the seas between Norway and Iceland. The Icelandic saga of Örvar-Oddr, from the thirteenth century, spoke of the “greatest monster of the sea,” which swallowed “men and ships, and even whales. “These intriguing news are retaken in later texts, such as the chronicle of the Swedish Olaus Magnus, of the sixteenth century, which described colossal creatures capable of sinking a ship. In the eighteenth century, such stories continued to circulate, and in fact, it was then that the monster began to be known as “Kraken” Norwegian term that referred to something twisted. In 1752, the bishop of Bergen, Erik Ludvigse Pontoppidan, speaks of the Kraken in his Natural history of Norway : “A beast of a mile and a half in length, which if it took hold of the largest warship, would drag it to the bottom” , and specifies that “he lives on the seabed and only rises to the surface when heated by the fire of hell.”

Viewed At Sea

In these hyperbolic descriptions, not everything was imaginary. Pontoppidan, for example, noted that “the animal’s discharges muddy the waters. ” Therefore, it could be a squid: a giant squid. The history of the Kraken was related to the adventures of sailors in unknown seas who told around the turn what they had seen and experienced. If the Nordic sailors had been limited to the North Atlantic, in modern times the field of observation was extended to the whole Pacific.

Some sailors spoke of the “Red Devil,” a squid that caught and devoured castaways. Others referred to insatiable marine animals that reached 12 or 13 meters long. The testimonies of naval officers who described encounters with these beings followed one another, showing the bewilderment among the scientists. The famous Swedish naturalist Carl von Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy, included the Kraken in his Systema Naturae (1735), but most scientists were not prepared to assume the existence of the terrible Norse monster.

The sailors spoke of creatures that exceeded 10 meters in length whose discharges muddied the water

An example of this closure was the unjust fate of the French naturalist Pierre Denys de Montfort. In 1801, in his general and particularly natural history of mollusks, Montfort collected “the most enormous animals that exist on the planet”: the colossal octopus and the Kraken octopus. It was based on the Nordic accounts and contemporary sailors, which he related to a similar animal cited by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Montfort included in his work the drawing of the attack on a ship by a huge octopus – supposedly happened on the coasts of Angola – that would become the iconic image of the Kraken, but that caused the unanimous rejection of the scientific community and the lifetime discredit of its author.

In spite of it, the testimonies on the existence of this legendary animal followed one another. The whaling captain Frank Bullen described the sighting, without any doubt, of a “giant octopus in combat with a sperm whale. ” According to his description, his eyes were located at the base of the tentacles, which supports the idea that it was a large squid.

A Definitive Encounter

The episode that marked a before and after in the history of the giant squid occurred in 1861. The French steamerAlecton found a cephalopod six meters long northeast of Tenerife, in Atlantic waters. Its commander, the frigate’s captain Frédéric Bouyer, told the meeting in a report to the French Academy of Sciences: the animal “seemed to want to avoid the ship”, but the captain prepared to hunt it by firing harpoons and rifles at him. He even ordered “to hoist him on board by tying a rope around his body”, but finally the creature “dived” into the depths. Even so, Bouyer was left with a fragment of the squid which he sent to the prestigious biologist Pierre Flourens.

The giant squid burst in its own right in literature with works such as The Workers of the Sea, by Victor Hugo, or Twenty Thousand LeaguesUnder the Sea, by Jules Verne. Always eager for new scientific discoveries, Verne described in his work the meeting of the Alecton and all the mythical and historical references to the animal. It also included the attack of a squid on the submarineNautilus itself. The scientists, meanwhile, analyzed the testimonies of sailors and the remains of squid recovered from the sea or stranded on the beach and concluded that they corresponded to a particular species of squid, which they named Architeuthis dux.

The giant squid can measure up to 14 meters and has as its only natural enemy the sperm whale

Even today this is a mysterious animal. Almost nothing is known of its life cycle and its customs, even if it is a single type of squid or several. It has only been filmed sporadically by a Japanese scientific team in 2006, by a scientific expedition in Mexico in 2007 and a North American channel in 2012. In any case, its size is around 10 meters in the case of males and 14 meters in the females. His eye, the largest in the animal kingdom, can measure up to 30 centimetres in diameter, the size of a car’s hubcap.

The Cantabrian dwelling

The habitat of these animals is located in the extreme depths, especially the Pacific Ocean, but also the Atlantic. For example, it finds refuge in the Avilés Canyon, which sinks 5,000 meters deep off the Asturian coast. Historically, local fishermen are used to finding when they go out to fish and never gave too much importance to the controversy over its existence. It is so familiar that it has its particular vernacular name: peludín. And since 1997 he has a museum in his honour, in Luarca.

Peludin or Architeuthis, the truth is that the Kraken is a real animal, although not as fierce as the creature out of the Nordic imagination and the Renaissance bestiaries. So real that only our secular abandonment of underwater exploration and the advances of science separate us from their full knowledge and study. Meanwhile, its mystery will continue to feed a legion of cryptozoologists bent on resurrecting not only the Kraken and other terrible beasts, but the most romantic creatures of the old seafaring legends.

To know more: The giant squid. Ángel Guerra Sierra. CSIC, Madrid, 2009.



Source: National Geographic

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