Stories and Traveltips

ID #1198

A Fisherman’s Tale, Eastern and Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal, Southern Africa.

I remember going to the “bioscope” (a South-Africanism for movies) in the Town Hall on Wharf Street, Port Alfred in the late 50’s to see Jules Verne’s “20000 Leagues under the Sea”. I remember scenes in which a deep-sea diver, in a heavy brass helmet, descends into the greenish-yellow water. Initially, the operator of an air pump on the surface goes walkabout, leaving the hapless diver without air. Then he is attacked by a diver who attempts to cut his air supply line with a huge knife. But the final straw was when he was attacked by a giant octopus, arms flailing wildly about. To say that I was scared is an understatement. As a result, I have been fascinated by the subject ever since.

Interestingly, there is much evidence to suggest that this story is based on fact rather than fiction. Information on the subject is scattered, as follows:

o    Books on whaling: There are many references to giant squid in old books on whaling, which they called Kraa.
o    Kon Tiki Expedition: In Thor Heyerdahl’s famous book he notes that, while floating on their raft across the Pacific at night, lights blazing, they saw eyes the size of saucers above the surface in which the light from their raft was reflected. He was unable to explain this observation.
o    Second World War: American pilots downed during the Battle of the Coral Sea survived by clambering into life rafts dropped from search aircraft before being rescued by ships. Several had huge sucker marks on their legs and arms which, they claimed, were the result of squid attempting to pull them into the sea by extending their tentacles over the sides of the rafts.
o    New York Museum of Natural History: There is a life-size model of a giant squid hanging from the ceiling of the museum. Apparently it was made from a cast of a carcass that washed up on a beach in Tasmania. Museum personnel are in no doubt about the existence of such animals.
o    Sperm whales, the only great whales with teeth rather than baleen, feed on giant squid. They dive into the deepest parts of the ocean to hunt squid where they live during daylight, only rising to the surface at night. Marks on the heads of sperm whales indicate that they engage in fierce battles with squid at such depths. The largest recovered intact from the stomach of a sperm whale was 19 feet long. Those recovered in bits and pieces suggest however that they grow much larger. It has been suggested that they grow to 150 feet (50-m) in length. 
o    Sperm whales are the most numerous of all great whales, with a global population of approximately 2 million. Furthermore, they are found in all oceans of the world. There must be many giant squid to support such a large population of whales.  In other words, giant squid are plentiful.

Relating this story to my nephew, a skipper of transatlantic yachts, he said this did not surprise him. Apparently a National Geographic expedition was becalmed in the Azores (which, incidentally, is in the mid-Atlantic trench – the deepest part of the Atlantic) at night. The lights on the yacht were on and, seeing something in the water, they decided to investigate. After donning wetsuits they dived in. Seeing them, one of the squid shot out a tentacle (I am not sure this is the right term – it is like a trunk with a hook at the end that they use to grasp prey). Anyway, its tentacle hit one of them in the chest, ripping out a piece of his wetsuit. Apparently they leapt out of the water without further ado having lost the urge to investigate.

It seems reasonable to assume that, being related to cuttlefish and octopus, giant squid are intelligent. Secondly, they are large. How large is uncertain but they are large enough to attack and kill calves of southern right whales.  An article in the New York Times described how a giant squid attacked and killed the calf of a southern right whale in False Bay in 1976. Such calves weigh several tons at birth, so giant squid must be large enough to subdue such prey. Thirdly, they are numerous. Fourthly, if they move as fast as cuttlefish, they are fast. And lastly, if they behave like their smaller cousins caught off the coast between Port Alfred and Mossel Bay, they are aggressive. In other words, large, fast, powerful, intelligent and aggressive predators in large numbers – surely the most terrifying monsters in the world and the stuff of which nightmares are made.

In one of his books, Laurens van der Post notes that killer whales attack the calves of great whales. National Geographic recently produced a video in which a pod of killer whales attack and drown the calf of a California grey whale in spite of a spirited defence by its mother. The scene is not for the feint hearted – they force their way between mother and calf, drown it, eat its tongue and leave the rest of the carcass untouched.

With such predators about, southern right whale cows would presumably search for the shallowest water in which to calve, thereby affording their calves some protection until large enough to fend for themselves. Which is presumably why so many calve in Walker Bay, on the continental shelf that extends southwards from the Cape coast. Presumably it is also the reason why, in some places, they come so close inshore, particularly at night, one cannot sleep because of the din. Laurens van der Post reported that whales entered rivers along the coast in the 1920’s and earlier, presumably for the same reason. This is not hearsay -- a whale recently swam up the Kowie River in Port Alfred. I know because some idiot leapt onto its back, resulting in the righteous indignation of the community. And whales frequently enter Knysna lagoon, particularly at night.

Thus far the argument, while fantastic, sounds plausible. But it also provides an explanation for something that continues to baffle scientists – i.e. why do whales and dolphins regularly strand themselves on beaches around the world. Are they not simply trying to protect their calves from attack by such monsters? Furthermore, does it not explain why many head back to the beach after having been rescued by well-intentioned humans? Whales, like many other animals, are not stupid. If they were, they would not have survived such competition for millions of years.  Alan McIver NFAfish

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Last update: 2014-03-28 08:00
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.4

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