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The Globe and Mail

Fatal giant squid attack off Nanaimo a fairy story

A Humboldt squid washed up on a beach in Tofino in 2009.

Josie Osborne for The Globe and Mail/josie osborne The Globe and Mail

They're nicknamed Red Devils for their mean dispositions and burnt-coloured skins. In underwater diving circles, they're both revered and feared and have been known to attack whatever creatures cross their paths.

So, when an outdoor magazine ran an article recently outlining Canada's first-ever killer attack of a diver by a giant Humboldt squid off Nanaimo, B.C., the local tourism community was alarmed.

The city's thriving underwater diving industry feared the news would put a chill on tourism, the way Jaws, the movie about a predatory great white shark chewing up swimmers, drove people from ocean beaches 35 years ago.

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The only problem with the legend of the giant killer calamari from Nanaimo is that it isn't true.

Nanaimo's mayor, a diver himself, said the city has spent years developing its diving industry and fears the damage is irreparable.

"We're trying to market our city as a diving destination, and pointing out to people that killer squid are lurking in the water to drag you to your death is not a pretty positive signal," Mayor John Ruttan said Thursday.

The article, published in the January/February edition of Western Sportsman, said a scuba diver off Nanaimo was "attacked by several squid and dragged to his death."

The mayor, who bought the magazine after he was tipped off by local reporters, said he knew the story was false because no one in town had heard about a killer squid attack. Mr. Ruttan contacted the RCMP to double-check; they had no records of it.

Mr. Ruttan then e-mailed magazine editor David Webb and asked for an explanation and retraction. The editor looked into the matter and eventually learned that the writer's source had recanted the squid story. The magazine has issued a retraction on the magazine's website and promised the mayor that it will run in the May/June print edition.

"While Humboldt squid have been spotted in the area and have been known to attack divers in other locations, following reader inquiries and further investigation, our writer's source for information on the Nanaimo-area attack was found to be in error," the retraction reads.

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Mr. Webb did not respond to a request for an interview.

Other divers fear the erroneous account could dissuade would-be divers from taking up the sport.

"It might hurt the industry in general, because people hear stories like that and it's one more thing keeping people from learning how to dive," said Ed Singer of Nanaimo's Sundown Diving.

The city has spent time and money attracting divers, most of whom come from Western Canada and the United States. Three military ships were sunk off its harbour specifically for scuba divers.

The Humboldt squids, which can reach about two metres in length and weigh 100 pounds, have been spotted in the waters and beaches off the west coast of Vancouver Island, but they're rarely seen off the eastern coast of the island near Nanaimo, Mr. Singer said.

The jumbo squid are fierce predators whose range has expanded further north along the eastern Pacific in recent years. Sightings that were once rare in California are now commonplace, and scientists say their numbers are on the rise.

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The squids have razor-sharp teeth and use their long tentacles to draw prey in. They have been several documented Humboldt squid attacks on divers off the California and Mexico coasts.

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