Avian Flu
Bill Bennett, Leninist

Giant Squid!

Sam Leith writes:

Telegraph | Opinion: What we wanted was something writhing and multi-tentacled; something mysteriously mottled, its skin semi-translucent and its surface slimy; something at home in the other element. We wanted to see some creature from HP Lovecraft with a vast, unblinking eye surge up out at us from the abyssal dark. And this week, thanks to the efforts of a pair of Japanese scientists, we got a glimpse.

The squid-hunters had tried all sorts of ways of getting the shot. They had even strapped cameras to the foreheads of sperm whales, in the hope that, you know, the whales would get hungry and amble down to the bathyspheric depths of the ocean in search of a giant squid, and then they'd have a fight with the squid live on TV, and that would be even more cool. This was possibly not how they expressed it in their application for funding, though it should have been. In the end, it took a baited line 450 fathoms long somewhere in the Pacific, and a good deal of patience. Then it came: a 35ft beast engulfing the bait, writhing like mad, and finally whooshing off back into the dark, leaving behind a single piece of tentacle, hooked on the line and continuing to wriggle.

Why does this make us so excited? What good, you might reasonably ask, does it do the world to spend all this time and effort trying to find something that plainly doesn't want to be found? Giant squids mind their own business. They are shy, choosing to live in the very deep dark ocean, and perhaps painfully self-conscious about their vast size, like a teenage girl who puts on an adolescent spurt of growth a year before everyone else in her class. The feelings of the squid in this matter are not considered. They've been hanging out down there for millions of years, and have never bothered us. They do not represent a threat, having neither opposable thumbs nor any use for the parts of the world we prefer to live in. They like the wet bits. We like the dry bits.

Nor are there palpable material benefits for us. They are hardly going to provide a miracle food source. They are fiendishly hard to catch, as we have established, and once caught are no good to man or beast. Their buoyancy equipment requires them to be filled with ammonia, so as well as being rubbery and butt-ugly, they taste of pee. Nevertheless, I don't think it a waste of money to be trying to find giant squid - any more than I think it a waste of money for us to investigate outer space. It not only satisfies scientific curiosity; it nourishes the sense of wonder.

That sense is at its most acute halfway between superstition and science. If something mysterious is known, held up to sight and understood - if it can occupy a bright gallery in the Natural History Museum - it has joined the community of facts. It retires to the suburbs of some taxonomical catalogue. But if it is a rumour, a conjecture, just on the brink of being confirmed, it becomes intoxicatingly liminal: half myth, half reality. That's the big striptease: the one tentacle left on the hook like an elbow-length glove. The squid shows up, vamps a bit in the green light of science and disappears, like one of Forbidden Planet's "creatures from the Id", back into folklore...