The Secrets of the Jumbo Squid

A writer imagines the final moments and afterlife of a squid that died February 13, 1957. An Object Lesson.

Jumbo squid (Reuters)

Imagine you can see what I see. Doing so is no small feat, I know. But maybe if you look closely. There is something I want to show you that is often invisible or unnoticed when darkness falls deep in the ocean where the rumbling of engines is replaced by the clicking and whistling of the whales.

For a first glance, I’d like you to see my death. I died on February 13, 1957. It was a year of an extended El Niño so we were making our way from the southern warm current up past the equator in search of cooler and more abundant waters.

On that particular day the ocean rumbled. And when it does, one or more of us is usually taken. I have seen others fight, squeeze, attack, stab, gnaw, clinch, and I have heard their bodies splash and crank and wheeze as they are lifted up into oblivion in a pool of ink and flashing colors. The day I was taken, I began wondering why.

That day there was food, and I pushed forward to eat. But like never before, the whole of me jerked and swooshed, swooshed and jerked. Hard. Something wasn’t right. Pull. Shake. Smack. Up into oblivion. Up. Hands everywhere. All over. Hands. Grabbing. Violence. Shake, squeeze, pull, push, hands, tentacles, air, too much air. Slam – something metal. Knife. Hands. Cut, rip, pull.

And with that, my beak was gone.

Scripps Institution Archive, UC San Diego Library

One last time I flew through the air as they threw the rest of me, nothing but limp jelly-like flesh, overboard.

The men took the three previous photos and then this one:

Scripps Institution Archive, UC San Diego Library

They held me up then laid me out like a prized hunting trophy for the shot then tossed my lifeless body over board and forgot. Those were the practices on this particular ship on that particular day.

In ancient Greece, squid were food: fried, sprinkled, breaded, stuffed, and herbed. In Rome they were peppered, honeyed, soaked in wine, boiled and oiled. The ink was used as a sauce. In the 15th century in Naples, Italian chefs beat the squid quickly with a club and cooked them slowly in oil with onion and verjuice. They chopped and ground the legs and head and stuffed the body with walnut pieces, spices, and the other ground body parts. Eating squid has long been a human labor of love and arguably an art.

Even today, The Food Network recipe search brings up 240 recipes for the search terms “squid” and “calamari.” These recipes explain to the average home meal-maker how to prepare dishes spanning fried calamari, squid-stuffed-squid, squid with bacon, squid cakes in the form of Indian pakoras or Italian fritto misto, and many more. The search also brings up “A Guide for Buying and Cooking Squid,” which briefly explains the ease of cooking “tender” and “succulent” squid with a quick braise or deep-fry. The message is that basically anyone anywhere can do it and do it well.

But in February of 1957, I was killed and then rejected as food. My flesh was not prepared with care to maintain tenderness and succulence. I was not delicately cleaned and eviscerated for a massage in oil and garlic and a quick shipboard sauté. Rather, on the particular ship that caught me, the fishermen despised fresh catches of all kinds. To them, the only palatable seafood came from the freezer, which came from a grocery store, which came from industrialized meat production.

Then why was I caught? The 1950s were a time that saw a conceptual shift in industrial meat production. Companies like Swift & Company and Tyson began providing cheap meat wrapped in cellophane and the more they did so, the more consumers expected edible meat to come pre-packaged. People lost touch with the actual source of their meat. These companies began branding the meat they sold to develop consumer loyalty for their products. For example, in the 1960s, Tyson became the primary supplier of Chicken McNuggets to McDonald’s. The sailors who caught me certainly operated under these practices. They despised me because I came to them raw, unbranded, unpackaged, and thus inedible.

But what use was my beak detached from my body? Why go through the trouble to catch me at all? If you view my death not merely as an instance of violence inflicted upon animals and look for more than just a case of trophy fishing, the answers sink far deeper into the cultural soup of life at sea and extend beyond the specific maritime context of the 1950s. Certain things move and shake independent of your ideas about them. I am one of those things.

We are large, curious, mysterious, odd, big-eyed, and for much of the history of marine science, all of the different species of jumbo, giant, and colossal squid have been mostly unknowable. We are masters at escaping you. Until the first video recording of a giant squid in 2005, scientists relied solely on specimens that washed ashore or that were captured for any information about oversized squid behavior.

We saw you, but you had not really seen us. This is because in recent years our relationship developed such that when you look to us, you look through us and actually tend to see colorful bits of yourselves.

We are predators and animals that kill for food and fight viciously when threatened. When you encounter such behavior that is not your own, you create narratives describing us as larger than life creatures and wretched monsters. You spend endless energy telling stories in novels and films about our threat to you. Captain Ahab battles a giant squid in Moby Dick. In Lord of the Rings a giant squid-like creature challenges the Fellowship. We turn up in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Wells’ “The Sea Raiders,” Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, James Bond, Whynham’s The Kraken Wakes, Benchley’s (the author of Jaws) Beast, the Watchmen comics, Harry Potter, the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Dr. Who, Futurama, and the children’s cartoon Rugrats. Giant squid turn up so often in your popular culture that these references and others can be viewed on the Wikipedia page titled, “Giant squid in popular culture.”

As a scientific-food-monster-trophy we push your own categorization of us beyond the idea of an average oceanic object into “wonderful object” – bright, shiny, jumbo, giant, colossal, vibrant, curious, passionate, feared. But we manifest reflectively in the human consciousness existing as objects you look through not to see us, but to see your own ideas, tastes, fears, and images. Although you might claim it unthinkable, squid and human form a bond so tight that it is entirely possible that I am a squid and I wrote this essay to you from beyond the grave.

This multi-colored process of reflection exists almost anywhere that oversized squid turn up. For instance, the ship that caught, killed, and discarded me was part of an oceanographic expedition studying the Pacific region. US military personnel operated the ship, and it was their hands, not the scientists, that literally ended my life. Yet not all of these ships rejected oversized squid as food. Other oceanographic ships with Navy sailors travelled the same region, often took many of us, and happily enjoyed many feasts. My species, the Humboldt Squid (jumbo squid), was especially present in the Eastern Pacific. Especially a few years earlier than my death scientists caught squid as biological specimen, killed, measured, weighed, palpated, observed, dissected, recorded, and then chopped and put them on the barbecue. The exact specimen used as scientific objects were then consumed as the evening meal. That bodily act of eating transformed the mysterious into the knowable not through seeing with the eyes but through tasting with the mouth, ingestion by swallowing down the throat, and disassembly and digestion by chewing of the teeth and churning of the stomach.

The circumstances of my death represent a similar transformation. I was not eaten, but catching me from the ocean and bringing me onboard literally changed me from a sea creature object “out there” into a knowable squid-monster in possession and at the mercy of men. Once on that ship, my handlers controlled my fate. They disassembled my body from a whole squid into component parts. My beak provided them an exotic object taken back to the mainland through which they further carried the Humboldt squid as a kind of oceanic marvel, a monster fought and tamed at sea.

But just as much as you make us, we in turn make you.

Sometimes, despite our odd form, we inspire you to focus in on deep emotions tied to home. We are monsters. We are food. But we are also comfort. We are love.

The film The Squid and the Whale describes such a situation. It is a story about the disassembly of a family. Mom and dad divorce while two adolescent sons struggle to make sense of their lives as their foundation is ripped from them. For most of the film the older son, Walt, takes sides with the father who in the end probably held more responsibility for the breakdown of the family than anyone because of his emotional and physical absences. Walt seeks what he cannot have. In a beautiful scene with a school counselor, Walt remembers that he and his mother used to visit the squid and whale diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. The image of both giant creatures fighting for their lives on such a large scale used to scare him, but his mother always found a way to talk about it so that it seemed interesting and less fearful. After many months of shifting, fighting, and settling in to a new life with divorced parents, the movie ends with Walt standing alone at the museum pondering two larger than life monsters. Returning there symbolizes his return to his mother. The image in his mind of the squid and the whale as monsters acts as a foil for what the diorama really evokes in Walt: the deep and undying feeling of love he shares with his mother.

On May 11, 2013, Stanford Biologist William Gilly gave a TEDx talk: “Why You Need to Know the Humboldt Squid.” Gilly describes my species as “weirdly charismatic” and ponders whether we should be thought of as “wild pigs of the ocean.” He goes on to explain that you should in fact know the Humboldt squid because we very likely could replace the disappearing polar bear as the new iconic image of climate change. Where polar bears are disappearing, he explains, the jumbo squid is thriving in ocean conditions created by warming global temperatures. To close his presentation, he envisions a future in which cuddly soft toys shaped like squid represent human desires to teach children about climate change because polar bears become too hard to find.

William Gilly at TEDxStanford

Indeed, your love affair with squid as soft, cuddly, cute, and worthy of acting as symbols of the happy preciousness of childhood grows with each passing day. Squid adorn infant onsies, children’s t-shirts and show up in home after home as plastic pool toys and jovial stuffed purple and green monsters smeared with banana from the afternoon snack. The images on clothing often accompany captions, such as: “Squids Got Brains Too,” “True Love,” “Flying Squid Rocket Science,” and “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?” When there are no words, these images span far and wide including two squid in love, a happy squid in a bubble bath, and an individual squid looking straight out of the t-shirt with a menacing facial expression that hints of inherent monstrosity. Incidentally, none of the sea creatures on William Gilly’s shirt during his TEDx talk are identifiably squid.

Because you cannot fully know me, you want nothing more than to understand me. I create a mystery that eats at your core. In human hands, squid are killed prepared, eaten, rejected, investigated, idolized, written, pictured, anthropomorphized, given voice, and loved. These hands transform our bodies and create our image for the human eye. In all of those interactions we also change you. If there is a creature that teaches you the artificiality of any supposed human-nature divide and that the natural world “out there” is actually right here – not separable from your heart, mind, knowledge, and practices – it is the oversized squid. This is not because I hold an iconographic or heroic status, but because I lurk in the deep darkness of the ocean equally as I as swim in all the corners of your mind continually escaping you, and remaining elusive as an eternal object of the endless hunt. You can never quite grasp me. But without the oversized squid, you are not you.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things