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Earlier this year I published a blog about the monsters of the sea, and how rational our fear of them really is. When I asked readers what ocean creatures they fear them most, the list turned out to be endless! It would have been way too much to discuss all of these monsters in one blog post, so I decided to turn it into a series. Last time we discussed the titan triggerfish, jellyfish and sea snake (click here if you missed it). This episode is all about superlatives: the cutest, the ugliest and the most mysterious! Welcome to part 2 of the Scary Sea Monster Series 🙂

Orcas

Let’s start with quite possibly the cutest looking sea monster out there: the orca. Cute but deadly, as the name killer whale – by which orcas are also commonly known – suggests. Let’s take a closer look at this giant ocean panda, and find out why it has such a notorious reputation.

Did you know orcas belong to the dolphin family?
Photo by Christopher Michel

Orcas are actually dolphins! Wait, what?! So why are they called killer whales? Ancient sailors observed groups of orcas hunting and preying on larger whale species. They called them ‘asesina ballena’ or ‘whale killer’. Through the years, this name was eventually flipped around to killer whale.

Being a dolphin and all, orcas are mammals and not fish. They are considered the largest species of the dolphin family, and the most widely distributed mammals besides humans. Orcas live in all latitudes, in all oceans, from the Arctic Ocean to Antarctica. They are very social animals and live in large groups called pods, can live up to 100 years old and are highly intelligent. Orcas have the 2nd largest brain of all marine mammals with the most elaborate insular cortex in the world. This part of the brain is linked to emotions like compassion, empathy, perception and self-awareness.

Orcas are apex predators, meaning they sit at the top of the food chain. Their diet consists mostly of squid, octopuses, turtles and fish, but they have no problem taking down larger marine mammals like sea lions, seals, dugongs and even whales. They’re pretty creative when it comes to catching prey: they work together as a pod, or jump from the water onto land to catch seals! Add their incredible intelligence in the mix and you immediately understand that orcas can kill pretty much anything they want.

What to do if you see an Orca?

Honestly? Enjoy the moment! Yes, I’m serious. Although this massive, intelligent apex predator definitely has all the tools and skills to kill humans, the truth is that orcas simply don’t attack people in the ocean. There are no reported fatal orca attacks on humans in the wild. Orcas in captivity, that’s a whole different story! Four people have been killed (and numerous seriously injured) by orcas in marine parks like SeaWorld. Three of those four people were killed by the same orca! But can we really blame the orca for that?

Orcas don’t handle captivity very well. If you truly love these animals, go see them in the wild and avoid places like this.

So are there really no orca attacks on humans in the wild? According to David Kirby in his book Death at Seaworld, an orca bit the leg of a surfer in California in 1972, but immediately let it go. How can we explain this? There are a few theories about this, one of them being that orcas are picky eaters and only tend to eat what their mother teaches them is safe. Humans don’t qualify as such, for obvious reasons.

So (free)diving with orcas is in fact considered to be safe. There are various places in the world where you can do this, but Norway is the only place to do so legally. Add it to your bucket list right now, and stay away from places like SeaWorld.

How scary are orcas really?

Let’s look at the score: a giant dolphin that looks like a panda, who likes to hang out in big groups, can kill both in water and on land, and is highly intelligent and emotional. Yet has never killed any humans in the wild. In my opinion, this fascinating creature is not a scary sea monster at all. Just don’t lock him up.

stonefish

From one of the most beautiful marine creatures, we go to one of the ugliest one: the stonefish. When (if) you see one, you immediately understand how it got its name: it closely resembles a stone or rock. The stonefish comes from the Scorpaendidae family, which also includes scorpionfish and lionfish.

The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world, and can kill an adult human in less than an hour. But the stonefish doesn’t hunt – it waits for dinner to come to him. He sits perfectly still, flawlessly blending in with his environment. That doesn’t sound too dangerous, but the problem is that stonefish are incredibly hard to see, which is how they ambush their prey. They can wait for hours at a time, and when their prey is close enough it strikes. With its large mouth, it sucks the prey right in and swallows it whole. Yikes!

It’s easy to see how the stonefish got his name
Photo by Zsispeo

What to do if you see a stonefish?

Since they’re masters of camouflage, chances are you won’t actually see them, which is kind of the problem. If you do see one, the solution is quite simple: keep your distance. Although he’s certainly creepy, he’ll mind his own business and stay where he is.

If for whatever reason you do touch a stonefish, for example by accidentally stepping on one, or mistaking it for a piece of rock that you’re trying to hold on to, seek immediate medical help. Not only is the venom of a stonefish extremely painful, it can also cause heart failure and death if left untreated. Things you can do yourself to minimize the damage include washing the area with fresh water, and soak the wound in the hottest water you can tolerate for 30 to 90 minutes. Please remember this does NOT eliminate the need for professional medical care. After proper treatment, recovery usually takes about 24 to 48 hours.

The stonefish sure looks scary, but is harmless as long as you don’t touch him.
Photo by Andrea Bohl

How scary is the stonefish really?

Based purely on his looks and the fact that’s he’s the most venomous fish in the world, I’d say the stonefish is extremely scary. But based on his behavior, not so much. It’s true that they’re very hard to see and this in itself poses a threat. But as a cautious diver, you shouldn’t touch anything to begin with. That includes rocks, precisely because not everything that looks like a rock is a rock underwater. If you really MUST hold on to something (I mean, must you really?), take a good look to make sure it’s safe. All things considered, the stonefish is potentially scary, but isn’t a threat for divers if they don’t touch anything underwater.

giant squid

From the ugliest and deadliest guy in the ocean, to a creature that appears to come straight out of a nightmare: the giant squid. Out of all the ‘scary’ marine creatures we’ve discussed so far, this one is most deserving of the title monster. It’s believed to be the inspiration behind the legendary kraken sea monster.

This giant squid washed ashore in Trondheim in 1954. It had a total length of 9.2 meters.

What do we know about the giant squid? Well, not that much actually, and maybe that’s the scariest part. Giant squid live deep – very deep – in the Twilight zone (between 400 and 1000 meters). Because of this it’s extremely hard for scientists to study them, and most of what we know comes from carcasses that have washed ashore.

They can grow up to 12 meters long, and this is mostly due to their extremely long tentacles. They have the largest eyes in the animal kingdom – the size of a beach ball! This allows them to detect objects despite the lack of light that passes through to the depths they call home. Their diet consists mostly of fish, shrimp and other squid (hello cannibal) and probably small whales. They seem to live in all oceans, and according to scientists there are probably millions of them.

What to do if you see a giant squid?

Unless you’re planning on making a trip to the Twilight Zone, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Because they live so deep, the chances of an encounter with a giant squid are pretty much non-existent.

How scary is the giant squid really?

Who knows? There’s so very little we know about these creatures, other than that they’re very big and live very deep. Groundbreaking research in 2012 shows that the giant squid is indeed an active predator, but it seems like they only attack direct prey and that they are not naturally aggressive. But then again, who knows? I guess the mystery around this elusive marine creature is the most terrifying thing about it. Scary sea monster? Maybe, but as a cephalopod fan I’m fascinated, and I hope we will learn more about the giant squid in the coming years.

Rare footage of the giant squid

Alright, that’s enough suspense for now. I hope you’ve come to realize that these wonderful creatures are not that scary after all, and that they deserve our respect instead of our fear. Which marine creatures would you like me to include in part 3 of the Scary Sea Monster series?

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