Kraken Science


Giant Pacific octopus, NOAA

What lurks out in the darkest seas? Monsters, mankind’s angels…or both?

It may be more philosophy then physiology when nature/science author and cephalopod enthusiast Wendy Williams discusses her latest book, Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid at Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific on Thursday, Dec. 1.

The author

Throughout history, cephalopods have always the bad guy and never the hero. Aristotle called them “stupid,” and ancient mariners scared the be-jeezers out of land folk with tales about the deep water devils. Krakens. Soul-less. Horrific.

Even in modern times, literature and film paint a cruel portrait of these creatures as brainless, slippery, killing machines. Think: Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the campy It Came From Beneath the Sea – a flick which Williams saw as a wide-eyed child. She admits that that bad B-movie probably fueled her initial hesitation about octopuses – until she met them close-up and personal.

Now with a genuine affinity for these no-bones beasties, Williams knows that knowledge can replace fear – and she’s armed with plenty of facts, stories and scientific discoveries that can change anyone’s trepidation to admiration in a heartbeat.

In her book – and no doubt her lecture – Williams explains that learning more about squids, octopi and cuttlefish could mean big things for us humans. Cephalopod research could provide the answers to unlocking Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, help obstetricians deliver babies better and provide neuroscientists with hands-on insights.  Heck, for hundreds of years, scientists have used the squid neuron to study our human neurons – because we are so similarly designed. Humans and squid also share the same “camera” style eyeball with lens and cornea. Makes you want to cuddle up with your inner cuttlefish, doesn’t it?

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, Williams will check up on the house giant Pacific octopus in the Northern Pacific Gallery as well as discuss the latest news about the decrease of Humboldt squid in the waters off the Pacific.

“People are telling me that they aren’t finding them much at all” she says in her home in Cape Cod about the large reddish squid that hunt in groups which surprised California marine biologists a few years ago with phenomenal numbers. (In her book, Williams follows a Monterey Bay researcher who delves into the mystery of why such off-the-charts numbers of Humboldt squid.)

Researcher Julie Stewart with her Humboldt subjects

Williams says she expects to field questions about how dangerous these creatures are (“Everyone wants to know,” she says with a well-meaning sigh) as well as discussions into their intelligence.

Admitting that she didn’t know that much about cephalopods before the book, Williams says she “wasn’t ready for everything I learned. Things go on in the ocean that constantly surprise me and make me question what exactly intelligence is.”

Williams tells the story of the blanket octopus that “rips the tentacles off a Portuguese man o war and uses it as a sword. Just amazing that this creature knows to do this.”  There are the Home Depot-style octopi that build cities out of corral, broken bottles and other trash bits. A squid’s ability to magically change colors to escape detection is mesmerizing.

“I think the major thing to think about is that there are all kinds of intelligence in the sea, and we just don’t see it,” she says. But by introducing us landlubbers to the work of scientists who are delving deeper in those murky waters, Williams attempt to raise us out of our fear and put us into a place where we can come eyeball-to-eyeball with a giant Pacific squid…and not blink.

Wendy Williams at the Aquarium of the Pacific, 7 -8:30 p.m., Thursday, December 1, 2011. $5. For more information and for reservation, call (562) 590-3100, ext. 0.

(FYI: Williams’ book was just named one of the 10 Best Books of 2011 in Outdoors and Nature by Amazon. Holiday gift time, yes!)

— Brenda Rees