Giant Squid, 13 Feet Long, Washes Ashore in South Africa

mostly intact invertebrate makes for a rare find on beach

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A dead giant squid, mostly intact, recently washed up on a South African beach, Live Science reported. These creatures rarely end up on a beach, let alone in such a state—most have decayed or been picked over by underwater scavengers. Giant squid inhabit the deep sea pelagic zone of the ocean.

Deep sea diver in ocean trench
In the deep sea, the pelagic food web goes from plankton and krill up to blue whales and great white sharks, with others in between, as predators and prey vie for survival. Photo by Lillac / Shutterstock

According to the Live Science article, the size of most giant squid are even more shocking than the one found in South Africa. “The squid was likely more than 13 feet (four meters) long and probably weighed over 660 lbs. (330 kilograms),” the article stated. “That’s actually on the shorter side for a giant squid, whose females can reach up to 60 feet (18 meters) long.” The article also said that the eyes of giant squid are a foot wide, which is the largest in the animal kingdom.

These enormous, almost mythological sea creatures live in the deep sea pelagic zone of the ocean, along with other fascinating animals.

A Diet of Leftovers

Near the surface of the water, a busy ecology of hunters and the hunted make up a complex, dynamic food web. From plankton and krill up to blue whales and great white sharks, predators and prey vie for survival. Deep underwater, where no daylight penetrates, the base of the food web is replaced by leftovers from the activity above.

“The basis of the deep pelagic food web is actually detritus raining down from the surface waters and filtering down through the water and being scavenged up by all of these different organisms, [including] zooplankton that are living down there scavenging phytoplankton and then being consumed in turn by different larger organisms than that,” said Dr. Harold J. Tobin, Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “We also have many organisms called amphipods. They’re in the same family as krill, and they’re a very, very common zooplankton.”

According to Dr. Tobin, small organisms like amphipods are eaten by larger organisms such as fish. Likewise, fish are eaten by large “active swimmers” called nekton, which include cephalopods. Cephalopods include octopus, scuttlefish, and the giant squid.

Enough Calamari to Feed a Whale

“The deep pelagic zone also includes the largest invertebrates that live on the planet, in the form of giant squids and even what are called the colossal squids, which are a different species, but similar in body plan to the giant squids and equally large, in fact perhaps even a little bit heavier,” Dr. Tobin said. “The giant squids are an organism that has been known to exist from tales of mariners and from their partly digested remains found in sperm whale bellies and things like that over many, many years, and even centuries.”

However, Dr. Tobin said, a living giant squid had never been photographed until 2004, when a Japanese group baited one with a marine camera deep underwater and snapped its picture. He added that giant squid never come near the surface on their own, though they have been caught in fishing nets and brought to the surface near death, providing us with samples to study.

Perhaps most surprising of all is that even these gargantuan creatures are preyed upon. As Dr. Tobin said, their partly digested remains have been found in the stomach contents of sperm whales, meaning that despite their size, giant and colossal squid are still just someone else’s meal.

Dr. Harold J. Tobin

Dr. Harold J. Tobin contributed to this article. Dr. Tobin is Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He earned his B.S. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University and his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz.