Excerpted from Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer by Matthew Gavin Frank. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Gavin Frank. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
As Harvey stepped closer to the scene, he saw now that the fishermen’s raincoats were uniformly orange—and not yellow—and, as they surrounded the fallen beast like so many scattered searchlights, the smell of it, this close, shifted to something so deeply marine it smelled dark—mineshaft-dark; the rotting corpses of countless failed canaries, the ones who got lost in the pitch; and something of burning tires. In this, Harvey surely began to feel faint, the cool of the rain trickling to the inside of his coat, the drops running along the lines of his body, into his armpits, over his ribcage, commingling with the anxious sweat there. He exhaled and, given the temperature, saw his breath escape him, tumble into the air toward the giant squid, graying massive on dry land, and disappear. He began to have trouble determining exactly what he was seeing—what was, and what wasn’t.
The giant squid
is an umbrella classification that may encompass up to eight species.
has ten arms.
is prey to sperm whales, who house in their heads both spermaceti (a white waxy substance of uncertain biological function that humans have extracted and used in making candles, ointments, and -cosmetics) and the biggest brain of any animal.
is the semimissing link between vertebrates and invertebrates as, according to Harvey, “the glassy internal pen . . . and the calcareous internal ‘bone’ . . . are held to foreshadow the spinal column of the higher animals.”
’s tentacles are adorned with subspherical suction cups, each of which can be five centimeters in diameter, possess a sharp serrated lining, and are responsible for the ring-shaped scars that are commonly found on the heads of sperm whales.
’s tentacles are grouped around the beast’s “beak,” which resembles that of a parrot, but is way, way bigger.
’s suckers are typically described as “campanulate,” meaning of a flower, meaning bell-shaped, meaning like a campanula, the bloom which lent its name to Rapunzel, the bloom from which white latex is extracted to make the gloves worn by scientists when they dissect things like the giant squid.
’s blood loses its ability to carry oxygen in warmer waters, resulting in suffocation.
is fast. Harvey tells us that the shooting of its tentacles toward its prey “is the perfection of animal -mechanism . . . the most rapid motion known in the whole animal kingdom—not excepting even that of the tongue of the toad and the lizard.”
has the world’s largest nerve axon, or nerve fiber, or cellular jump-rope, the plaything of the dendritic schoolchildren who snort nodes of ranvier between recess and electricity class.
’s gotta lotta nerve, but is unresponsive to bad jokes.
’s eyes can be 46 centimeters in diameter, the same as that of
a beach ball
a basketball hoop
an extralarge (or “family size”) pizza
a birdbath that can hold forty adult robins
the cylinders within T. W. Worsdell’s 52-ton train engine which regularly carried twenty carriages over the steep gradients and sharp curves of the Great Eastern Railway,
the 1,900-pound balance wheel of a nineteenth–century gold-mining engine.
’s binomial nomenclature is Architeuthis harveyi, after, of course, the Reverend Moses.
’s pharynx is the size of an infant’s head: we see our children in it.
moves by propelling seawater through its torso (or mantle) in a rhythm that mimics human heartbeat.
’s own heart is often described as “lozenge-shaped,” something we can suck on to alleviate our sore throats.
lays her eggs—sometimes up to 50,000 at a time!—in a string that resembles a pearl necklace, torn, bouncing along the seafloor on her legs until she finds an object that she deems suitable on which to pile the mass of embryos, a process which often results in thousands of acres of seafloor to be covered with the sheen of her jellied eggs, until such an object, like a big pink shell, is found.
is the kraken’s backstory.
is the largest animal without a backbone.
has been fed to dogs.
was sighted by two lighthouse keepers attacking a baby whale off the coast of Danger Point, South Africa, my wife’s home country, in October 1966. With the whale’s mother watching, the squid clung to the drowning calf for nearly two hours and, according to one of the lighthouse keepers, “the little whale could stay down for ten to twelve minutes, then come up. It would just have enough time to spout—only two or three seconds—and then down again.”
can fuck up a sperm whale beyond sucker scars. In 1965, a Soviet whaler witnessed a battle between the two beasts. The resulting report read something like this, “задушил кита, плавающего в море с щупальца кальмара обернутые вокруг горла кита. Отрубленная голова кальмара был найден в желудке кита,” which loosely translates as “the strangled whale was found floating in the sea with the squid’s tentacles wrapped around the whale’s throat. The squid’s severed head was found in the whale’s stomach.” As cool as that sounds, it sounds better in Russian.
doesn’t make for easy prey in any language.
three times attacked the Brunswick, the Royal Norwegian Navy’s 15,000-ton auxiliary tanker, in the 1930s. Each time, the great beast was killed by the ship’s propellers, which themselves died prematurely as a result.
three times mistook the Brunswick for a sperm whale, meaning that the great beast would often, as my father encouraged me to do, as I was a small and sometimes bullied child, “fight back first.”
can best be captured “with all its faculties intact,” via a theoretical jig that would stand over 6 feet tall, would be studded with hooks large and small, would be akin to “a man-sized cigar with a fringe of tentacles at the front end,” would be fatter than most human beings, and would be baited with cut-up fish whose blood and scent would leach into the water through small perforations. Once hooked on this fat man jig, the boat’s winch would “play” the beast in the way that a “killer boat” plays a whale. The squid would then be drawn alongside the boat, bathed in searchlight, and shot in the head with “a heavy rifle.” This capture would be, according to the Atlantic Advocate’s Bruce S. Wright, “The greatest fishing thrill left on earth.”
while real, can best be captured in theory.
is, in Newfoundland, nicknamed “sea arrow” by the same fishermen who use it for bait.
is, in its larval state, weak and slitlike.
appears, underwater, to be translucent.
fresh out of the water is a dusky red. After a while, it will turn pure white.
’s eating habits were, until very recently, a complete mystery, as all specimens were found, strangely, with empty stomachs.
is big and hungry and can ingest fish even larger than itself, stalking its prey with its arms curved over its head, hiding the length of the tentacles, until proximity dictates the springing forward, the exploding arms, some thick as a mizzenmast, the lashing prey, the smothering, the engulfing, the suckers, as Harvey himself says, “perhaps twelve-hundred at once, sinking into the flesh . . . some the size of pot-lids . . . feeling like so many mouths devouring him at the same time . . . seeming to drink the very blood,” as the squid slowly drags the meal into its beak, its huge stomach turning bright red with the blood of the fish.
have been described as “using light patterns, colors, and postures as a means of communication. They didn’t just turn red or pink or yellow; ripples of color would wash across their bodies. And they would contort their arms into elaborate -arrangements—sometimes balling them together, or holding them above their heads like flamenco dancers.”
inspires scientists to go to extreme measures to capture it on film, such as the time Smithsonian Institution zoologist and Transylvania University graduate (and Captain Ahab-bearded) Clyde Roper and his crew attached a camera to the back of a whale (which can’t be easy), and retrieved some killer whale footage, but nothing of the giant squid.
allows so many pet owners to name their cats Architeuthis.
was the basis, in nineteenth-century Japan, for a “squid show,” which, according to Harvey, “consists of a series of figures carved in wood, the size of life, and cleverly coloured . . . [In one] was a group of women bathing in the sea; one of them had been caught in the folds of a giant cuttle-fish; the others, in alarm, were escaping, leaving their companion to her fate. The cuttle-fish was represented on a large scale—its eyes, eyelids, and mouth being made to move simultaneously by a man inside the head.”
was spotted one night by A. G. Starkey, a World War II British Admiralty trawler, who reported “as I gazed, fascinated, a circle of green light glowed in my area of illumination. This green unwinking orb I suddenly realized was an eye. The surface of the water undulated with some strange disturbance. Gradually I realized that I was gazing at almost point-blank range at a huge squid,” whereupon he strolled the 175-foot-long deck, bow to stern, and saw the tail breach the former, and the tentacles the latter.
is distinguished from other known cephalopods by “the most remarkable anatomical character observed”: the form and arrangement, as if symphonic, of the teeth on its “lingual ribbon.”
has paired organs of equilibrium and detection called statocysts. These detect both linear and angular acceleration. These organs have a greater likelihood of fossilization than other structures and are used to both identify fossil species and to age the giant squid.
has no idea that the prefix stato- means remaining.
may be the evolutionary stepping-stone from the mollusks to the fishes.
even at 1,000 pounds, is known to jump 10 feet out of the water, earning it, in northern Newfoundland, the local moniker “jumper.”
when swimming with others of their kind, have been described by fishermen as “looking like a shower of meteors against the blue depths; turning upward in graceful lines, their white sides glisten like a nebula of silvery stars and as quickly disappear.”
is a Web design company based in St. Paul, Minnesota, with this motto: “Your goals could be giant squids—things that you thought were imaginary, but are in fact quite real.”
is a self-proclaimed metal-progressive rock band based in San Francisco, California whose song titles include “Neonate,” “Ampullae of Lorenzini,” “Monster in the Creek,” and “Octopus” (a Syd Barrett cover).
is an audio lab specializing in “miniature stereo and mono, cardioid, and omnidirectional microphones.” They also specialize in their “own make of small, durable . . . microphones that can be [creepily and] discretely mounted.”
is, according to squidsquid.com, easily insulted. Accord-ing to the same source, effective insults range from “Your mama is so fat, your daddy thought he was attacking a submarine” (offensive), to “Your prehensile spermatophore-depositing tube looks short” (abusive).
has three hearts.
if male, has a penis that, when erect, can be as long as the mantle (torso), head, and arms combined. As such, according to A. I. Arkhipkin’s and V. V. Laptikhovsky’s article “Observation of Penis Elongation in Onykia ingens: Implications for Spermatophore Transfer in Deep-Water Squid,” published in the June 30, 2010, issue of Journal of Molluscan Studies, our beast possesses the “greatest known penis length relative to body size of all mobile animals, second in the entire animal kingdom only to certain sessile barnacles” whose dicks, obviously, are way smaller.
is a letterpress in Astoria, Queens, New York City, specializing in custom business cards, posters, wedding invitations, and stationery, bearing an evilly smiling androgynous jack-o’-lantern atop a female torso readying to flash her gourdy boobs á la Mardi Gras.
in Greece is garnished with parsley.
in Mexico with habañero peppers.
in Portugal with bell pepper.
in Sardinia with garlic and olive oil.
in Albania with squash.
in Turkey with tomato.
in Malta with capers.
in Spain with mayonnaise.
in Korea with mustard and pillard leaves.
in Slovenia with cheese and Swiss chard.
in China with rice.
in Russia with onion.
in India with tamarind.
in Japan with its fermented innards.
in the Philippines with its own fat.
in the Mediterranean with its own ink.
is served grilled or baked (diner’s choice) in a -ginger-infused soy sauce at Santa Clara, California’s Hatcho Restaurant.
is for sale, in all of its burgundy-colored plush 12″1. x 4″w. x 4″h. x 4″dia. glory in the gift shop of the National Museum of Natural History for $25.00 to nonmembers, and $22.50 to members. The stuffed animal has garnered only one online review, which lists nothing under cons, and under pros lists these four “adjectives”: cute, long-lasting, realistic (!), squidtastic.
is for sale, under the ad titled “lots of Artificial Squid for Sale,” on the Sword Fishing Central Forum, by a guy whose username is RUSTBUCKET LINES-IN, whose sales pitch involves “I have a whole box load,” and “make your own teasers and such,” and “here are the squid and colors I have,” and “dirt cheap,” and “very durable.”
is a cake, according to the blog Cloth and Fodder, which insists that the dessert need be white–chocolate-based and include in its list of ingredients a “toy boat” as a “reference point.”
is, in a frightening coincidence, featured in cartoon form on the front of a Real M.O.B. Apparel Squid Comic T-shirt holding an ice-cream cone (the shirt’s descriptive ad caption reads: A sweet little cephalopod enjoying his ice cream).
is a character in Team Club Penguin Cheats, some sort of game-playing group whose mission, with every sentence in it self-referential and rife with jargon only members can comprehend, eludes me.
is, according to David Klinghoffer’s article on recovering the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, “If the Children of Israel Were Giant Squid,” a perfect analogous tool for understanding the “subtext” of Psalm 137.
is, according to a 2004 Reuters report, a perfect, if unwitting, drug mule. In Lima, “Peruvian police say they have seized nearly 1,540 pounds (700 kilo-grams) of cocaine hidden in frozen giant squid bound for Mexico and the United States.”
is, according to Harvey, the same thing as the mythical Sea Serpent. “A double-headed, double-spined serpent seventy tons in weight, with something like the mane of a horse washing about the neck, is too much for this sceptical generation . . . and should this theory be sustained, it would follow that I have been successful in unmasking both, and I should have done greater things than I knew . . . and if I am in error, I am astray in good company.”
is the basis for one of my favorite boyhood articles printed in the May 1983 issue of my second favorite boyhood magazine (after Zoobooks), Boys’ Life, which includes what was my single favorite sentence for the remainder of 1983, a sentence that revealed, in its simple concision, a world far larger than the one I inhabited, a sentence that evoked something beyond me—a future perhaps, some gargantuan adulthood that hung just out of reach, a sentence that I repeated to Poppa Dave when Poppa Dave still had three years to live, lying on his hairy chest and Jewish mafia bling chai necklace on his and Grandma Ruth’s screened-in porch of their Palm Springs Phase II Margate, Florida, retirement condo, the interior of which was all peach and coral and the kind of silver that reflected your face back to you in that distorted, funhouse sort of way that made your eyes look bigger than they really were: “There are some who are convinced that species of giant squid exist that are still unknown to scientists,” after which Poppa Dave exhaled a mouthful of post-dinner cigar smoke, and, lifting the lip of his white wife-beater undershirt, asked me, seven-years-old, “Did I ever tell you how I got this scar?”
is right in front of Moses Harvey in 1874, the beast dead, but still somehow heaving, a trick of sunlight, the sun itself fat over the ocean, breaking through the sky’s film as if from some Great Beyond, like Poppa Dave’s enlarged heart, which the Long Island coroner who pronounced him dead in 1986 called giant, the result perhaps of too many cigars, too many inflated tales told to his grandson, too many diner scoops of his rich and ever-favorite flavor, promising, right there in its title, our demise.
– Matthew Gavin Frank has previously written about everything from wine-making in a tent in Italy to the social hierarchies of a pot farm in California. He teaches creative writing and lives in Marquette, Michigan.