A tentacled and elusive inhabitant of the deep sea has made a rare (and ill-fated) appearance off South Africa's western coast. Footage of the "giant squid" has been doing the rounds this week – but as is often the case with such encounters, the details being reported are sketchy and largely inaccurate.   

The deep-sea creature was found by paddleboarder James Taylor back in March near Melkbosstrand, a coastal village about 20 miles north of Cape Town. When Taylor shared his footage on Instagram just recently, it was spliced and shared by several aggregator sites and social media platforms.

"I first spotted the body floating behind the waves when I was walking down to the beach to go for a paddle," Taylor told us.* "I thought it was a big piece of kelp, then I thought it was a piece of plastic, but that also didn't look right. It was only when I got closer that I saw it was a squid of some sort."

Some social media posts claimed the squid swam in for a friendly "quick hello" with its human neighbours, while other platforms reported that Taylor was attempting to help the animal. A deeper dive into the story, however, reveals that neither of these accounts is correct. It turns out that the squid was injured, and Taylor decided to haul it ashore:

Attempting to wrangle a squid of this size – even an injured specimen – can be a dangerous move. Despite their squishy appearance, these animals are extremely powerful and their sharp beaks are built to crack tough prey. The best thing to do when faced with one of these creatures is to contact your local coast guard, aquarium or stranding network. 

One of the squid's razor-sharp suckers actually nicked Taylor's leg during the encounter. 

Roping the animal to shore was not an attempt to save its life – Taylor suspected it was already a goner. "I wanted to try get it to the beach for research purposes before it got more damaged by seals in the area," he says, noting that the squid was lethargic, missing several tentacles and covered with bite marks.

It's unclear whether the squid's injuries would have proved fatal, or if they had anything to do with the animal's appearance so close to shore, but the specimen did look to be in bad shape. Past encounters with large squid observed swimming erratically in the shallows have usually involved sick or injured individuals.

"It was only when I pulled the rope tight and started dragging that the squid started moving ... and only for a couple of minutes," clarifies Taylor. "By the time I got it to the beach it wasn't moving at all anymore. I decided the most humane thing to do was to sever its head and put it out of its misery. It's never nice seeing anything die, but I felt it was the right thing to do."

Taylor shows a tooth-lined sucker, from one of the squid's tentacles. Image: James Taylor/provided

Despite a few negative reactions from online commenters, Taylor stands by his decision to haul the animal to shore.

"We did contact the waterfront aquarium [once on the beach]," he adds. "We dissected it and took a bunch of videos and photos that we later sent to them. They sent these on to a professor who has been studying giant squid in South Africa for the last 15 years and he was very excited about the find."

According to Taylor, this animal was identified by local researchers as a true giant squid (genus Architeuthis), but several other possible IDs are floating around, including the smaller Humboldt squid

Humboldt squid are known to inhabit the Eastern Pacific, so the species is not a good geographical fit for the Melkbosstrand specimen. The animal's external appearance also doesn't seem to be a match, especially judging by the shape of the mantle (the fleshy top of the body) in this secondary footage from Taylor's encounter: 


So are we really looking at the elusive Architeuthis? Smithsonian Museum of Natural History invertebrate zoologist Dr Mike Vecchione, who has done extensive work on oceanic squid, thinks it's likely. "The footage on the beach looks like a giant squid to me," he says.*

Those white "worms" you see exiting the squid's body in Taylor's clip are spermatophores, which confirms that this specimen was a male.

It's certainly possible for a true giant squid to turn up in these waters. In fact, this wouldn't be the first time local surfers and the mighty cephalopods have crossed paths here. Just last year, big-wave surfer Kohl Christensen found a giant squid 65 miles south of the small town of Kommetjie.

Based on past specimens, researchers speculate that the waters off the southwestern coast of Africa may be one of "Archie's" natural feeding and spawning habitats. 

Vecchione agrees that it's unlikely this animal could have outlasted its stint in the shallows. "If these squid are in the shallows, they're sick or dying," he says. "As long as [Taylor] contacted researchers, there really wasn't anything 'bad' done here." The exact cause of death is difficult to pin down, but the squid may have been attacked by a predator while still in its deep-sea habitat. 

"There have been a few recorded cases of sperm whales catching giant squid, then bringing them to the surface to feed their young," adds Vecchione. "And occasionally the whales don't eat them for whatever reason." That said, illness could just as likely be the culprit here. 

Squid scientist and author of The Cephalopodiatrist Dr Danna Staaf agrees, and adds an interesting possibility to the mix. 

"The white patches are places where [the squid's] skin has rubbed away completely," she says.* "Smaller species of squid often start to fall apart after mating, and it has been speculated that giant squid might do the same, so this could be a post-spawning individual."

She also notes that while the animal is certainly clinging to Taylor's board in the initial clip, she doesn't see any aggressive behaviour. 

Don Marx, a tagger with South Africa's Oceanic Research Institute, adds that the local topography may have pushed the already-weakened giant inland. 

"Cape Town is where the Benguela and Mozambique currents meet," he explains. "This causes us to get some very 'lost' species. However most of them are scavenged ... before samples can be taken for proper identification."


*Editor's note: Quotes from Dr Mike Vecchione, Dr Danna Staaf, and James Taylor have been added for clarity.