Deep in the ocean, there is a profound space between what science can explain and what's left to our imaginations. To fill in the gap, humans have spent centuries spinning tales of hundred-foot, tentacled monsters, fierce enough to capsize boats and fend off sharks.
Now, for the first time, scientists have evidence of a large cephalopod tangling with a shark. The shark survived, though not unscathed. This finding was published in June in the Journal of Fish Biology.
Before November 2019, study co-author Deron Verbeck had never seen anything like the “white dots” he would later notice on an oceanic whitetip shark.
He was shooting photos off the coast of Kona, Hawaii when he spotted the strange markings. Verbeck, an underwater photographer whose unique style involves only shooting in ambient light while holding his breath, was "perplexed by the seemingly purposeful placement of them," he tells Inverse.
Once he got home and looked over his photos, he noticed that those white dots were evident in the last photo he'd taken that day. A closer look suggested they were sucker marks.
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The photo is the first evidence of marks from a cephalopod on a shark. Subsequently, a team of scientists used Verbeck's photos from the past decade to inform the new finding.
"[Verbeck has] spent probably more time in the water with those sharks, off of Kona, than anybody else," the study's lead author Yannis Papastamatiou tells Inverse. "He has seen so many that I think he knows it when he sees something different."
Papastamatiou, an assistant professor at Florida International University, studies predator ecology in locations around the world — near Mexico, French Polynesia, and Belize. This is the first time he's seen these kinds of markings on a shark.
Based on the size of the tentacle marks, Papastamatiou and his colleagues think that the cephalopod that left the marks was at least 1.5 meters long — not including its tentacles. There are a few families of larger cephalopods living near Hawaii that could have been the culprit.
One of them is the giant squid.
Mysterious squid of the deep — The first time humans scientifically described the giant squid, Architeuthis dux, was in a paper published in 1857. The lore extends even further back, through the 1500s, report curators from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).
In the intervening centuries, around 20 different species of Architeuthis have been identified. But a lot of what we know comes from either partial squids washed ashore or the mashed-up contents of a sperm whale's stomach, AMNH curator Mark Siddall explains.
Giant squids might also be more common than we think, Siddal says. Unlike sperm whales — which, at 40 feet long, are pretty hard to miss — giant squids are notoriously elusive. He reasons that they are "probably not that rare" — otherwise, what would sperm whales be feeding on?
Still, what we don't know about giant squids can be measured in sinking leagues. Researchers have further questions about the maybe-interaction with the white-tipped shark.
For instance, the team estimated the size of the squid based on how large they believe the sucker marks were. But a scar left on an animal can change over time as the animal gets bigger, explains Mike Vecchione, zoologist and curator of Cephalopoda at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Vecchione was not involved in the study.
As a result, some of the estimates of giant squids' top size may be exaggerated. Reports of 100-foot-long squids, for instance, have been based on calculations from sucker marks left on sperm whales.
In those cases, Vecchione says "almost certainly what's happened is that that was a sperm whale that had an interaction with a giant squid when it was a fairly young sperm whale.
"And then it grew up — and as it grew, the scars grew as well."
In reality, giant squids probably top out at around 30 or 40 feet, Vecchione reasons. That's still remarkably large and places the creatures at around the same size as an adult sperm whale, as seen in the famous display in the AMNH.
When sperm whales and squid do tangle, though, it's probably less "battle of the ocean giants" and more a spar for survival, Vecchione says. Sperm whales eat big squids — and squids fight back by grabbing hold of the whale. When the squid wins, the attacker's scars tell the story of what happened.
Vecchione and the authors of the new study agree that was likely what happened in the case of the whitetip shark too.
When it comes to what we do — and don't — know about the deepest parts of the ocean, giant squids are just the beginning.
"Squids are emblematic of the deep sea, and how little we know about that," Vecchione says. "The fact that most of the living space on our planet is in the deep sea, and it's the least-understood part of the planet, means that we know very little about what lives on our own planet."
The vastness, and sense of distance, certainly create a sense of mystery. More than 80 percent of the ocean is unexplored — the true extent of what is out there is unknown.
For Verbeck, the best way to get close to marine animals is to take photos the way he's come to specialize in doing: Diving deep on a single breath, without the help of ocean-disrupting artificial lights.
"I think the most surprising is that a lot of the animals are genuinely curious about something new in the water with them," Verbeck says. "From sharks thinking I’m a new food source to different types of whales and dolphins just not used to seeing humans and showing a real sense of curiosity."
Sharks, and oceanic whitetips in particularly, are among Verbeck's favorite to photograph.
"They tend to be more interactive for longer periods of time," he says. "There’s always that element of the unknown — if it’s going to try and eat me or not."