By Mark Robertson
July 16, 2016
IF I were to design a totally alien species – given my formative childhood diet of B-grade sci-fi, James Bond and The Three Stooges – it would consist of writhing tentacles, green blood, huge eyes capable of ultra-violet vision, multiple hearts, a voracious parrot beak, jet propulsion, smokescreens, and the ability to change colour instantly.
I am, of course, describing the fascinating (and tasty) southern calamari squid, a highly evolved invertebrate which resides in our truly special coastal waters.
The mythical Kraken was the nemesis of early sailors, a gigantic marine beast capable of turning a ship into matchsticks, and devouring the crew. It is thought to be based on the giant squid (Architeuthys sp.) a very real sea monster, growing more than 25 metres in length, and famous for its marine battles. Sucker marks the size of a rubbish bin lid have been found on sperm whales and huge corpses have washed up on New Zealand beaches, making this denizen of the deep only too real.
Our local waters are host to several less intimidating species of Kraken (cephalopods), the arrow squid which live offshore, and spend their short lives either feeding or avoiding the jaws of mako sharks, barracouta, etc. The calamari prefer shallower, more placid waters, the seagrass beds of Western Port and the marine meadows of our Bunurong coast being more to their liking for feeding and breeding.
Did you know that the Bunurong hosts the third most diverse collection of marine plants on the planet? Yet another reason to marvel at and protect our special coast.
The calamari exists by the "live fast, die young" creed. Hatching from eggs carefully placed by their parents among the seagrass, they are ready to face a year-long life of voracious hunting of fish and crustaceans (basically anything smaller than themselves), while avoiding becoming a meal themselves, since many species, including humans, find a meal of squid simply irresistible. Most of them die after multiple spawnings, providing they survive that long.
One of my most memorable Kraken encounters happened while I was snorkelling at Harmers Haven several years ago. I happened across a tiny 3cm calamari, perfectly formed and obviously newly-hatched. It adopted the large black shape, allowing me to cup it in my hand, and stayed close by for half an hour, seeming to be aware of the multitude of gaping mouths surrounding it. I hope it survived to pass on its genes and survival instinct.
To grow and mature so quickly the squid uses its huge eyes, camouflage and stealthy movements to hunt fish, sneaking up and rapidly extending its candles – catching tentacles – to ensnare its prey, then dragging it towards the sharp parrot beak for dismemberment and ingestion.
Due to its anatomy, the oesophagus passes through the squid’s brain. Camouflage is enabled by chromatophores, pit-like structures in the skin which can open up to display a brownish colour, or rapidly contract for a more translucent look. The huge eyes can see into the ultraviolet spectrum, and keep a panoramic lookout for predators.
Slow, stalking movement is by means of rhythmic beating of flaps along the body, forwards or backwards. If threatened, however, a jet-propelled squirt of water from a siphon permits rapid escape from predators. The calamari can also deploy a smokescreen of ink, a black/brown compound known as sepia, to aid its escape. San Remo pier is stained with this ink.
For many years, while the Greek and Italian communities knew calamari as a very tasty and sustainable seafood, we foolish Anglos regarded it as good only for bait, but the secret is now well and truly known.
Don't feel guilty about enjoying a feed of fresh calamari – if they grew bigger they would happily feast upon us! Fortunately Bass Strait is too shallow to host the real Kraken – or is it?