BOOKS: The Search for the Giant Squid

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:

The Search for the Giant Squid
by Richard Ellis
The Lyons Press (123 W. 18th St., 6th floor, New York, NY 10011), 1998.
336 pages, hardcover, $35.00.

Richard Ellis makes a convincing
case that most of the best-documented “sea
serpent” and other “sea monster” sightings of
the past 450 years were actually sightings of
architeuthis, the giant squid, which has in fact
been known to science from tangible specimens
since 1545, and was formally identified
as a species by Japetus Steenstrup in 1854.
The size and shape of a giant squid, Elis
argues, tends to be so unfamiliar to most
viewers that partial views are easily misread.
So far, so good––but Walt Disney
P r e s e n t s made the same case, with much of
the same illustrative material, in a 1954
episode assembled to promote the Kirk
Douglas film based on Jules Verne’s 1874
novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Ellis
offers, essentially, a much more detailed but
heavily redundant update.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of
Ellis’ work is the response, chronicled over
and over, of humans to encountering an unfamiliar
species: kill it. Some kill the beast for
science, some for perceived sale value, some
for bait, some for dog meat, some for sheer
sport, and some as an imagined threat, though
there is no authenticated record of a giant
squid ever harming any person. Hardly anyone
seems content to observe nature; each,
rather, must make the squid a trophy, with
repetitively predictable failure, as ropes
secured around each carcass inevitably cut it in
half as soon as it is lifted above the supporting
sea, leaving most of the remains to sink back
into the depths.

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