The Kraken Strikes Back

I’ve always found the legends of sea monsters rather fascinating. The depths of the deep blue ocean have long held mysteries – scientists are still trying to research them all – and are so vast that they could easily contain gigantic creatures terrorizing ancient mariners.

Legends of sea monsters go back more than two millennia, and are found in almost every culture with a sea coast. They even persist today – the largest ‘Nessie’ hunt ever just took place last month in Scotland, even though there’s never been any credible evidence that the creature actually exists.

Medieval maps often showed monsters cavorting in the seas beyond the shores of the known world. Cartographers decorated fine maps with them (on display in fine homes or castles) to entertain people who, because of the difficulties of travel in that period, weren’t able to visit the places on the maps themselves. Maps made for navigators heading out on expeditions would have been drawn with more practical information, even though the sailors would have been wary of monsters lurking out there somewhere.

Furthering the general mystique, strange carcasses have been washing up on shores for several centuries at least. A few have been identified as decayed shark and whale remains, but some remain unexplained. The Stronsay Beast washed ashore in the Orkney Islands, Scotland, after a storm in September 1808. It was measured by a carpenter and two farmers and recorded as 4 ft wide and 55 ft long (later disputed), and a circumference of about 10 ft. Its skin was smooth if stroked from head to tail but rough if stroked in the other direction. There were bristle-edged fins, a row of bristles down its back that glowed in the dark when wet, and three pairs of appendages that were described as ‘paws’ or ‘wings’. An anatomist in London, England, decided that it must have been a basking shark, but the description of all the appendages, as well as a sketch made at the time, bear no resemblance to any kind of shark. The old mystery continues!

Sketch of the Stronsay beast made by Sir Alexander Gibson in 1808; By Sir Alexander Gibson –, Public Domain,

The most notorious of the sea monsters was the Kraken, a fearsome beast that was said to be able to capsize an entire ship with its enormous tentacles. This behemoth was said to haunt the waters between Iceland and Norway, and was described by Dano-Norwegian missionary and explorer Hans Egede in 1734.

Egede, basing his knowledge on fishermen’s reports, described a creature several miles long, “having many heads and a number of claws”. When it surfaced, it seemed to cover the whole sea. It used its claws to capture a variety of prey – from fish to men to entire ships – and carry them down into the depths. The fishermen said they could mount the kraken and catch huge numbers of fish that it seemed to attract; however, should they ever capture the monster, the only way to avoid their own destruction was to pronounce its name so that it would return to its watery lair.

Then a Danish author and bishop, Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan, fed the legends in a book called The Natural History of Norway said that mermaids, sea serpents and the Kraken existed. Well, who would argue with a bishop? Authors Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, and Jules Verne, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, even referenced Pontoppidan’s writings.

In 1866, author Victor Hugo wrote of a large octopus called a pieuvre and tied it into the kraken of legend, and when a French malacologist (a scientist who studies molluscs), Pierre Denys-Montfort, published an engraving of a gigantic octopus attacking a ship, the creature became synonymous with kraken monsters ever after.

“Le Poulpe Colossal” by malacologist Pierre Dénys de Montfort, 1801, from the descriptions of French sailors reportedly attacked by such a creature off the coast of Angola. By en:Pierre Denys deok4 Montfort / fr:Etienne Claude Voysard – from en:Image:Colossal octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort.jpg where it was uploaded by en:user:ffdhhlSalleman., Public Domain,

In 1866, author Victor Hugo wrote of a large octopus called a pieuvre and tied it into the kraken of legend, and when a French malacologist (a scientist who studies molluscs), Pierre Denys-Montfort, published an engraving of a gigantic octopus attacking a ship, the creature became synonymous with kraken monsters ever after.

Montfort believed that the kraken was the same creature that Pliny the Elder (in the first century CE) described as a man-killer that tore apart ships and killed the sailors. He blamed colossal octopuses for the loss of ten warships under British control in 1782, for which he was roundly ridiculed.

However, in 1813 a ship named Niagara, sailing from Lisbon to New York, logged a sighting of a 200 ft long marine animal floating in the sea, purportedly covered in shells with a lot of birds sitting on it.

What mariners may have been seeing were actually giant squid, which can grow up to 50 ft in length.  Almost the length of their own ship, these massive sea creatures must have been terrifying at the time.

Giant squid are deep-ocean dwellers, and so difficult to track down that the first images of them in their natural habitat were only taken in 2004 by a Japanese team of researchers. Sadly, scientists have tried to study them by capturing live specimens to bring back to a lab, but the specimens invariably die. Octopuses and squid are highly intelligent animals.

They belong to a group called Cephalopods, which have large, well-developed brains. They’re highly social, and can communicate visually using a diverse range of signals produced by changing their posture or locomotion, the colour of their skin and even the texture of the skin.

They’re extraordinary hunters who’ve adapted brilliantly to the presence of humans in their habitat. Octopuses will steal bait out of lobster traps and are also known to climb aboard fishing boats to hide in the containers that hold dead or dying crabs, their favourite food.

The prehensile arms with highly sensitive suction cups on octopuses, squid and cuttlefish allow them to grasp and manipulate objects. In captivity, octopuses require stimulation or they’ll become lethargic, so their keepers give them toys and puzzles. They’ve been observed in ‘play’ behaviour, repeatedly releasing toys into a current in their aquariums and then catching them.

If they’re feeling peckish, octopuses have even been known to climb out of their tanks, cross the lab floor and enter another aquarium, where they eat the crabs and then return to their own aquariums.

Cephalopods can solve complex puzzles and remember the solutions to them, such as unscrewing the lids of containers and opening latches on boxes to obtain the food inside.

They also seem to feel despair, and have been known to throw themselves out of their laboratory tanks to commit suicide on the floor. It makes one wonder who the monsters are, the sea creatures or the researchers who insist on capturing them just to study them more closely.

However, because of their intelligence, since 2022 all vertebrates, cephalopods, and decapods have been recognised as sentient by the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, and that is a very positive development.

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