Fark.com is one of my favorite websites. The premise of the site is simple: random people ("farkers") submit real news stories that are distinguished by their hilarity, stupidity, or strangeness. Each article is submitted and linked with a funny but fake headline - of the thousands of articles submitted each day, only a few dozen make the main page. So regular readers of Fark end up with a free gonzo news clipping service, with the witty headlines as a bonus. Last night one of the Fark headlines caught my eye: "Bad news: Man-eating squid on the loose in the Pacific. Worse news: Each female produces up to 30 million offspring. Fark: Please tell us you're squidding." Needless to say, I clicked on the link to the article.
The article is fascinating - it claims millions of predatory Humboldt giant squid have in the past few years moved north from their typical equatorial waters to the Californian and even Alaskan coasts. It goes on to say that "two Mexican fisherman were recently dragged from their boats and chewed so badly that their bodies could not be identified even by their own families." So notorious are these squid that they are called "diablos rojos" - red devils - by Mexican fisherman. By this point, my BS meter was running high. For one, if two Mexican fisherman had literally been eaten by these super squid it would likely have been reported on the major news channels. And second, 30 million offspring per mama squid just seemed downright inconceivable (pun intended). I decided to investigate.
The truth about Humboldt Squid, while not necessarily as fantastic as the article suggests, is still pretty nuts. They can grow to be six feet long, and can swim up to 15mph (three times faster than Olympic swimmers). They have three hearts and a very large brain, to go with their ten tentacles. Each tentacle has over 1,000 sucker disks, and each sucker disk has over 20 teeth. They hunt in packs of up to 1,000 and change colors and reflect light to communicate and possibly confuse their prey. When the fish are in sight, the Humboldt Squid go into a feeding frenzy, aggressively attacking everything around them, using their baseball-sized beaks to devour what they catch. To add to their legend, Humboldt Squid eat each other - scientific estimates suggest fellow Humboldts make up perhaps 20% of their diet.
But what of all the man-eating reports? As it stands, there are no scientific reports confirming this has ever happened. Any claims have come from fishermen's stories passed on through the years. Then again, there are relatively few scientific reports on the species in general. A few things are clear - according to leading squid expert William Gilly of Stanford these squid do two things in life: they eat and they reproduce. They are intelligent, inquisitive, and communicative (even if we don't yet know what they are saying). They have indeed moved north to California waters, and there is no question they are eating a significant portion of already depleted fish stocks. Ongoing studies are taking place to determine the long-term ecological implications of these new staples of the California coast. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about their mating habits or their total population. Even their life expectancy is unknown, although estimates range from 1-2 years.
This lack of solid information probably plays a role in this particular squid lore. In a vacuum of scientific data it is easy to call these bizarre and ferocious predators man-eaters. Then again, those who have been brave (or stupid) enough to swim with Humboldts while they were feeding have been attacked quite viciously. If not for armored wet suits designed specifically for these missions, a squid-Jaws moment is certainly conceivable. No matter what the science shows going forward, I know enough to keep me far away from los diablos rojos.