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Beware of the Kraken

Sometimes things happen that seem inexplicable and the other day one of those things happened to me. That morning I recalled a story I’d read years before about three fishermen that had been attacked by a giant squid, also known as a Kraken. Later that day, when I was at a cookout a woman told a story about a dog she’d adopted. The dog had a name she didn’t like, his name was Kraken. Immediately I thought what a strange coincidence and it got me thinking about the Legend of the Kraken.
The Kraken was a legendary sea monster of enormous size and the subject of sailors’ superstitions since medieval times. I looked it up on Wikipedia and the Kraken was first described at the turn of the 18th century by Francesco Negri in 1700. This description was followed in 1734 by an account from a Dano-Norwegian missionary and explorer, Hans Egede. He described the Kraken in detail and equated it with the mythical Hafgufa of medieval lore.

In 1753 the Norwegian Bishop Erik Pontoppidan was the first to popularize the Kraken to the world. He described the creature as multiple-armed and, according to lore, conjectured it to be a giant sea-crab, starfish, or octopus. Pontoppidan also described the destructive potential of the giant beast: “It is said that if the creature’s arms were to lay hold of the largest man-of-war, they would pull it down to the bottom”. According to the Norwegian dictionary, krake, from the Old Norse meaning “malformed or crooked tree.”
The story I’d read about the Kraken took place in 1783 off the coast of Newfoundland. Two men and a boy were fishing when they saw a large object floating on the surface of the water. They rowed over to investigate and the object suddenly came to life. It was some kind of a creature and it grabbed their boat with long tentacles, estimated at thirty-five feet long, and water began to pour into the boat. Fearing the boat would capsize, the boy, Tom Piccott, grabbed a tomahawk and began chopping at the tentacles severing two of them. The creature, wounded, fell back into the sea emitting a cloud of black ink as it disappeared under the water.
When the fishermen got to shore young Piccott took one of the tentacles to Reverend Dr. Moses Harvey, a local amateur naturalist. Harvey gave Piccott ten dollars for the specimen and later wrote about what was the first scientific evidence that these creatures actually existed. “How my heart pounded as I drew out of the tub in which he carried it, coil after coil, to the length of nineteen feet, strong and tough as leather, about as thick as a man’s wrist. I knew at a glance it was one of the tentacles or long arms of the giant cuttlefish. Eureka!” Over the following years many more specimens of giant squid were found, confirming its existence, but the legend of the Kraken grew.
The only confirmed story about an encounter between a ship and a giant squid occurred in 1861 when the French corvette Alecton was sailing near Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The Alecton was a 570-ton French paddle-wheeler powered by a 120-hp steam engine and sails on two masts. She was 167 feet long, a beam of 40 feet, drawing 10 feet of water. She had a crew of 66 men and officers and her armament consisted of two light cannons.
As the ship neared the island the lookout yelled, “Ahoy, a large body, partly submerged, on the surface”. Captain Frédéric Bouyer later described the object as a “gigantic squid”. At the time giant squid were only legends and Captain Bouyer knew if he could capture the creature, it would be a major discovery. The captain ordered his crew to man their battle stations and to fire muskets, launch harpoons, and try to ensnare the squid with a noose. The bullets seemed to do little damage to the squid’s rubbery body. They finally managed to bring the ship alongside and slip a rope around the squid’s body. However, the weight was so great that when they tried to haul it aboard the squid’s body was torn and they only recovered part of its tail. The piece of tail weighed over 30 pounds. The captain preserved the specimen and it was later given to a museum.
Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, his famous novel about Captain Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus, mentions this encounter. Verne describes the Kraken this way, “Before my eyes was a horrible monster worthy to figure in the legends of the marvelous. It was an immense cuttlefish, eight yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes. Its eight arms, fixed to his head, that gave the name of cephalopod to these animals, were twice as long as its body and were twisted like a furies’ hair. One could see the 250 air holes on the inner side of its tentacles. The monster’s mouth, a horned beak like a parrot’s, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came out quivering from this veritable pair of shears. What a freak of nature.”
In 1874 newspapers around the world published a sensational story about an attack by a giant squid on the 150-ton schooner Peril. The story goes that the Peril was sailing in the North Atlantic when it was attacked by a giant creature. According to Captain James Flood, the creature was half the length of the schooner but just as thick. The captain took up his rifle and shot at the creature with seemingly no effect. The crew grabbed axes and cutlasses and fought the creature while the creature’s giant tentacles pulled the schooner over by her rigging. The schooner capsized and sank throwing the crew into the sea. Reportedly a nearby ship, the Strathowen, witnessed the attack and was able to rescue the crew of the Peril. Many different versions of this story appeared in print but unfortunately, for Kraken fans, the whole story was most likely fabricated.
I remembered a night many years ago when I was sailing off the coast of North Carolina. It was a pitch-dark night with a light fog obscuring any lights. Suddenly I heard a loud sound behind the boat like a giant breath. It sounded three times and then was gone. Whale, dolphin, or something else, who knows but at that moment I could understand why the legend of a Kraken persisted. What unknown mysteries and monsters are hidden in the abysmal deep? According to scientists, specimens over sixty feet long have been discovered but no one really knows how big they can get. Perhaps the legendary Kraken will someday be discovered.