|THE NAME SCAPA FLOW IS SYNONYMOUS with those ghostly wrecks of German warships scuttled during WW1. It attracts divers from all over Europe, so when I was asked to dive there for the BBC TV series Coast, boy, was I excited!|
I have an confession: with all the diving Ive done, I had still never done the Scapa wrecks. I had been close on countless occasions, but then schedules would change. At last, an opportunity!
Then the news came - we would not be diving the wrecks. I was gutted. My only compensation was the Orkney sealife on the menu, both above and under the water.
Orkney is famed for its seafood, with crab and lobster fisheries making a large contribution to the local economy and accounting for 10% of all UK lobster landings). However, something else in Scapa likes lobster: that most intelligent of invertebrates, the octopus. And the octopuss garden is a spot just around the corner from the wrecks, at Inga Ness.
The lobster fishermen had apparently been getting a bit hacked off with the local octopus population. The latest trick of these creatures, known for their Houdini-like antics and intelligence, was to hunt out lobster pots, squeeze in, have lunch and then do a runner, leaving the fishermen with a lot less than they had bargained for.
Surprisingly, despite those large claws, lobsters are a relatively easy prey for octopuses, which have a venomous bite containing a neuromuscular toxin that paralyses them. Its safer and easier to eat if your food isnt struggling to get away!
A FRIENDLY FISHERMAN HAD PUT some pots down for us and marked them for easy recovery. A quick recce dive showed that one now contained a lobster, so we made a start.
Doug Allan, a bit of a name in wildlife film-making, was with us. If youve ever watched a snow leopard, polar bear or beluga whale on TV, chances are that he filmed it.
We also had a superhero acting as my safety diver. Its hard to take seriously someone who is there to ensure that all goes smoothly and sensibly under water when hes wearing a Spiderman drysuit.
Sitting on the bottom in crystal visibility, we filmed some set-up shots. Our task was then either to wait for a friendly octopus to pass by, or to wrangle one into place.
I wont beat about the bush - as dive time is always limited and we had only a couple of days for filming, we went for the latter option.
Marine biologist Daniel Wise from Sula Diving was our wrangler, and well up for coaxing our eight-legged actor into place.
Never work with animals, they say. My first job in TV was as an animal-handler but those animals had limited scope for escape in the studio.
It was 10 times harder under water. The octopus can move in three dimensions and knows it. If it needs to get somewhere in a hurry, either to escape or to catch prey, it uses its turbo jets. As its mantle contracts strongly, forcing water through a moveable funnel that sticks out from its edge, the octopus is propelled in any direction - fast.
And with its ability to change colour in an instant, we lost our octopus a few times in the kelp. It took four divers to cajole the reluctant star into position ready for the camera, but finally he realised that lunch was on us today.
All was going swimmingly, but no sooner had the octopus got into the lobster pot than it spotted a small hole in the corner and made for it. Almost completely soft-bodied, apart from the beak, octopuses can squeeze through the tiniest of spaces.
There are stories of octopuses held in separate tanks in laboratories waiting until the scientists went home for the night before pushing off the tank-lids and squeezing through tiny gaps. After a brief sexual encounter in the next tank they would return, presumably looking suitably innocent in the morning!
Our clever critter, uninterested in a free lunch, found its exit barred by divers, but it got its way in the end.
Working closely with a single animal allows you to appreciate just how remarkable it is. An octopuss eyes do give the impression that theres a lot going on behind them, and I learnt that they are left- and right-eyed.
Apparently every octopus has a favourite eye. Such handedness, or behavioural asymmetry, is unique among invertebrates.
The skin is also fascinating - the chromatophores, or colour-cells, pulse dynamically with colour as the octopus constantly adjusts to camouflage itself. Moving over rocks on its suckers, it seems to flow like a liquid, a true stealth predator.
More chasing around eventually gave us the shots we needed. Next time, we use a large tank!
And as a footnote, I should add that, as in all filming set-ups, we aim to minimise stress to the animals involved. Our captive lobster did not end up on the menu - much to the octopus's disgust!