Flying squid and island encounters in the 1830s

At Perth Museum and Art Gallery there is a journal written by Dr John Lyell, a ship’s surgeon from Newburgh in Fife, in which he documents his journey on board the whaling ship Ranger. He writes over two volumes during the period from 1829-33. In addition to in-depth descriptions of the places, the people and the creatures he encounters, Lyell includes some fine colour illustrations.

Turning the pages of the two volumes, I felt privileged to be able to read the words written by a man almost 200 years ago as he voyaged around the world. I was surprised to read about one of the animals he encountered in the waters around Japan – a flying squid. On 12th 1831, Lyell writes:
“…a shoal of flying squid rose from the sea and crossed our track as the ship passed. Many dashed against the side and were killed, about a dozen alighted on the decks, and a few flew over the ship altogether and escaped into the sea on the opposite side. A flight of these animals presents a very irregular spectacle; as they rise from the sea they eject a shower of ink in the face of their pursuers and in a body proceed to the distance of 30, 40, or 50 yards; on the wing the arms surrounding their mouth are spread out and assume the form of their triangular tail. I am almost certain the tail is anterior in flight but nevertheless their outline thus [line diagram of shape quid makes overhead] is so dissimilar to that of Volant animals in the air that is cannot be viewed for the first or second time without great astonishment. Nor is ones wonder at all diminished if one of these curious beings should happen to fall at his feet while he walks the decks. Had it not been evident to his own senses, he scarcely could have been convinced that an animal so constructed had ought in common with the birds.”

I shared the details with colleagues at the museum over lunch and we speculated whether this creature was really a squid and, if so, whether it still existed. Reading further, I found a coloured illustration of the flying squid and it did indeed look distinctively squid-like.

Flying squid drawn by Dr John Lyell, 1831

Flying squid drawn by Dr John Lyell, 1831


A quick look online by Mark Simmons at the museum returned a number of articles about the creature. It was only officially recorded as a species in the 1880s, 50 years after Lyell’s account, and it was only through research in 2011 that scientists were able to show this squid really does propel itself through the air (see K. Muramatsu et al., ‘Oceanic Squid do fly’, Marine Biology May 2013, 160, (5) pp 1171-1175). We wondered then if Lyell’s above description and illustrations provide one of the earliest written English language accounts of this animal?

In his journal, Dr Lyell often writes of difficult and even harrowing encounters on his journey. In a sombre account Dr Lyell writes of meeting a crew on another ship in June 24th 1831 who had recently visited an island near the Solomon archipelago. While there, they had friendly interaction with inhabitants of the island, trading for local produce and allowing many of them on board the ship. However, one day when most of the crew were on shore and a large number of islanders on the ship, two of them seized the captain. A struggle ensued which culminated in two dogs being allowed on deck to attack the islanders, who themselves had not brought on board any weapons. The crew took possession of the ship again without the loss of life. However revenge was instantly sought and the crew chased the islanders back to shore in boats “armed with whale lances and such ghastly weapons”. What happened next is described by Lyell as a “merciless attack” and he describes in detail the horrific actions inflicted on unarmed people. Dr Lyall writes with disgust for several pages, questioning how “Englishmen that pride themselves in philanthropy, and Christians that have been enlightened by the gospel” can act in such a manner. He gives two other accounts of such attacks by British crews, one on Nauru Island and the other at New Zealand. Although his language is steeped in his own prejudices commonly held by Europeans at the time, Dr Lyell’s opinions are clear. He asks not to hear anymore of cruelty by inhabitants in the Pacific Ocean,
“…when their bloodiest deeds are unparalleled by those of a people that boast the blessings of civilized life, and would feel themselves infinitely degraded to be placed on a footing [with such people]”

Dr Lyell’s journals are on permanent display in Perth Museum and Art Gallery next to their Tahitian mourners costume.

– Eve