Please note, I have shared our experience below to reduce the misunderstanding and demonization of octopuses NOT to stimulate diver attempts at interactions. What is described below was an unsolicited gift experienced by those with a very high level of dive experience; knowledge of octopuses (and dive buddy) behaviour; and solid safety protocols.
The Kraken?! Devilfish?!
Scary?! Dangerous?! Alien?
Suggest such things about a Giant Pacific Octopus to any scuba diver respectful of marine life who has had an encounter with one of these gentle giants, and there is going to be a very strong response shattering such mythology.
As it always goes, fear and mythology thrive where there is absence of knowledge.
Any negative encounters between divers and Giant Pacific Octopuses that I am aware of, result from divers manhandling them “insisting” on an encounter, or involve octopuses that are habituated as a result of being fed by humans.
We, as divers, are so fortunate to come across Giant Pacific Octopuses in their world where they are invertebrate royalty. We are able to meet them on their turf, and thereby know how inquisitive and intelligent they are. We know they are mighty, highly adaptable predators.
And, we know too, when we look into their eyes, that observation and assessment is being reciprocated.
That preamble was necessary before sharing what happened today.
This did . . . .
I had been taking photographs of Lingcod males guarding their egg masses and noted that my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson was signalling me with her light, indicating that she had found something of particular interest.
I took a few more shots and then swam towards her and found . . . my dive buddy with a Giant Pacific Octopus completely covering her face. Sorry that I missed that shot. I was so in awe of what I saw.
Natasha is an incredibly skilled and experienced diver with a deep respect for marine life. She was clearly not afraid, nor was the octopus.
Natasha had taken the precaution of putting her hand over the regulator in her mouth in case the octopus took an interest in that but otherwise, allowed her to explore.
I would learn later that, while waiting for me she had been watching the Copper Rockfish that you will see in all but one of the photos in this blog. This rockfish stuck very near the octopus. A buddy? That I don’t know but escorting a Giant Pacific Octopus on the hunt is a really good strategy. As the octopus flushes out animals from under rocks with his/her arms, the rockfish can grab the prey that do not end up under the octopus’ mantle.
While observing the rockfish, the Giant Pacific Octopus had slowly advanced toward Natasha and she remained where she was, intrigued at what would happened and having a contingency plan.
When I started to take photos the Giant Pacific Octopus gradually backed away but had taken a particular interest in a clasp at the end of a bungee cord on Natasha’s gear.
You can see how her arm was entwined around the cord and how there was some flashing of white in the skin. You can also see the Copper Rockfish!
I believe this octopus was a female, thanks to feedback I received from self-admitted Cephalopod Geek supreme, Keely Langford of the Vancouver Aquarium. Octopus males have a “hectocotylus arm”. In Giant Pacific Octopuses, it is the third arm on their right. The hectocotylus stores the spermatophores – packets of sex cells, two of which are handed over to a receptive female who stores them until ready to fertilize her eggs.
Having the good fortune to get photos of the right side of this octopus, particularly #5 and #7, allowed me to see that the top of third arm on the right is not differentiated and that therefore, this was a female.
Back to recounting our adventure . . . .
After about a minute or two of gently tugging on the bungee cord, Ms. Giant Pacific Octopus let go.
Natasha swam a bit further off, allowing me a few minutes to marvel and photograph this beauty – the Giant Pacific Octopus AND the Copper Rockfish.
When Natasha circled back, the octopus flashed a bit of white as you can see in the image below. Recognition?
We both found ourselves waving goodbye when we, regretfully, had to return to our terrestrial world.
So what to do when you find a Giant Pacific Octopus on your dive buddy’s head? Observe, marvel, take some photos, share and maybe it can help dispel some of the mythology and vilification about these fabulous marine neighbours.
Giant Pacific Octopus Facts:
- Enteroctopus dofleini is the world’s largest octopod species with the maximum records for size being 9.8 m from arm tip to arm tip and 198.2 kg.
- Average life expectancy is only 3 to 4 years.
- Like other octopuses:
- They have a beak with venom, three hearts, blue blood, and their skin is capable of detecting chemicals (as our nose does).
- While many sources report their having 9 brains, octopuses only really have one donut-shaped brain positioned around their oesophagus and then each of their eight arms has many neurons, this is referenced as “distributed intelligence”. Damir Allen explains at this source; “Think of it like a command centre and 8 independent soldiers. They all act semi-independently, and if separated from the main body they will continue to capture food and try to deliver it to a non-existent mouth.”
- Their ink is not just a distraction for predators but contains the chemical tyrosinase which causes eye irritation and messes up the predators’ senses of smell and taste.
- They are jet propelled and are capable of incredible camouflage where they can not only change the colour of their skin but also its texture to blend in with their surroundings.
- They mate only once. From the Vic High Marine website regarding Giant Pacific Octopuses: “Females die directly after they have finished laying and guarding to their egg however males live a slightly longer time. Octopus reproduction starts when a male uses a specialized tentacle [sic, octopuses have arms not tentacles] to pass two spermatophores (sperm packages) to the female. Once given the sperm the female stores the package until she is ready to fertilize the eggs. Before a female is ready to fertilize the eggs she has to find a suitable den. This search can take the future mother up to one month! Once the perfect place is found the female shuts herself in using rocks. From there she fertilizes each egg and gathers them in bundle of approximately 200. She hangs each group of eggs from the ceiling of the cave. This is a long process because, on average, a female octopus can lay up to 50,000 eggs. The incubation time for octopus eggs are six and a half months. During this time the female stays in the cave, not even leaving to eat, attending to the eggs by constantly blowing oxygenated water on to them. When the baby octopuses hatch they are referred to as paralave. These tiny juveniles swim up to the surface joining other zoo plankton and spending weeks feeding on tiny phytoplankton. Once they have developed enough mass they descend to the benthic zone. As for the mother, she waits until all the eggs have hatched then emerges from the cave and dies shortly afterwards due to the starvation she endured during the months she spent devoted to tending her eggs.“
- Excellent on-line resources on octopuses.
- A Snail’s Odyssey – Learn About Octopus. Includes excellent information on reproduction in Giant Pacific Octopuses.
- Berkley – The Cephalopoda – Squids, octopuses, nautilus, and ammonites. Includes an explanation of why octopuses have “arms” (non-retractable) not “tentacles” (retractable).
- Best book on Giant Pacific Octopuses – The Giant Pacific Octopus and Other Cephalopods of the Pacific Coast by James A. Cosgrove and Neil McDaniel.
- And the plural really is “octopuses” not “octopi”! See #3 at this link if you are doubtful.
Great thanks to Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Marine Services for making this dive possible.
Media coverage so thankfully resulting from this blog includes:
- Earth Touch News; 2015-02-26; “What to do when an octopus gives you an eight-armed face hug“
- Global News TV interview (video); 2015-02-25 – “Encounter with a Giant Octopus“
- Global News; 2015-02-25; “WATCH: Local diver’s encounter with a giant octopus goes viral”
- Huffington Post; 2015-02-24; “Giant Octopus, Diver Encounter Shows Nature Of ‘Gentle Giant’: Biologist“
- CTV News TV interview (video); 2015-02-24; “Gentle hug from octopus“
- CTV News; 2015-02-24; Deep-sea hug: Giant octopus wraps around diver’s face near Vancouver Island