A giant Pacific octopus gathers up its arms just before pumping a powerful jet of water from its funnel to start swimming. Photo: Neil McDaniel
Close encounters with super suckers
THE BEST PHOTOGRAPH NEVER TAKEN
NATURALIST AND AUTHOR ANDY LAMB, a veteran diver certified in 1967, has encountered many giant Pacific octopuses during his explorations along the West Coast and at the aquarium.
While Andy was busy working with Bernie Hanby on their 2005 book Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest, he had a memorable encounter. He recalled: Each summer I used to visit my friend Charlie Moffet at Brown Island in the San Juan Islands. This time Bernie and I were diving on the west side of San Juan Island from Charlies boat.
We were having a good dive, finding numerous creatures to photograph as well as enjoying good visibility. About halfway through the dive, we found a 7kg giant Pacific octopus in a rocky den. This individual was in the mood to play and began emerging from its shelter.
At this point Bernie noticed that he was out of film. Damn - or other expletives - could be heard in muffled form. I signalled to Bernie to head to the boat, get his second camera and return, while I waited with our newly found friend. So off he went.
Meanwhile, the octopus continued to befriend me. Initially it slowly crawled out and began to climb on my head. Ultimately this amazing octopus completely covered my mask. Everything went black.
Then it began to tug on my mask (which flooded) and my regulator.
At this point I decided that it was time to persuade my eight-armed buddy to reverse this process. Fortunately, with some gentle arm twisting, it retreated slowly. Eventually I was able to clear
my mask and watch the friendly creature move down my arm. The entire interaction seemed to last many minutes but likely was much shorter.
Just about the time that the octopus was disappearing into its den, Bernie (armed with his second camera and a fresh roll of film) arrived, ready to shoot. Another Damn!
No doubt the result is some of the best octopus diver photographs never taken.
MEETING THE BEAST
BIOLOGIST AND AUTHOR JIM COSGROVE has a lifetime supply of octopus stories. My wife Jeannie and I were diving one day when we passed
a small pinnacle of rock about a metre high. Perched on top of this pinnacle was a small giant Pacific octopus that was doing its best to look like the rock.
We slowly approached it and were able to move quite close before it became frightened. We stayed our distance, and after a few minutes the octopus appeared to be satisfied that we were not a threat. It changed colour and slowly raised itself on the rock to look at us more carefully.
After several minutes of watching us, it cautiously reached out with one of the front arms and started to feel my suit. Jeannie backed off a bit to watch this, and I allowed the octopus to explore.
After a few moments the octopus crawled over onto me and crawled up and over my head and then down my back. Jeannie was able to watch as it explored my tank and then crawled back over me and onto its rock again.
It just sat there flashing colours as we moved off.
Jim describes another incident that arose when he and old friend Jim Mendria were doing a photo dive north of Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
We had just finished videotaping a beautiful juvenile wolf-eel when we noticed a small giant Pacific octopus coming up a cliff face.
I positioned myself to lie flat on the bottom with the video camera recording. The octopus came over the edge of the cliff and stopped when it first saw me. Then, gripping the rocks with its rear legs, it slowly stretched out its front pair of arms to touch the arms of my lighting system. Through the viewfinder I could see the back arms quickly release and reattach to the bottom as the octopus slowly crept forward, and more of its arms covered my head and the camera.
Eventually my head and shoulders were completely engulfed in the octopuss web, and all I could see through the viewfinder were the small suckers surrounding the mouth, and the mouth itself.
Then the octopus decided to see if it could figure out what I was, and started to pull on my suit and the camera lights, so I decided to lift off the bottom. Startled at having the bottom move, the octopus released me and jetted off.
For many years Jim had searched for a nesting female octopus, but even in areas where he dived every week and knew all the major dens, he had never found one.
One day I was working for a film crew. We were in Saanich Inlet, and my job was to locate an octopus that I could capture and tag for the film crew.
My partner and I swam a very familiar route, checking known den sites as we went. At one of the deeper dens, we noticed that the entrance was filled in with rocks and there was only a very old midden. Nevertheless, we were getting concerned about not finding an octopus for filming, so I moved some of the rocks and shone my light inside.
To my complete surprise and delight, I was looking at a female giant Pacific octopus and a full nest of eggs! We returned to the boat and informed the film crew of this incredible find and how lucky they were.
Imagine my disappointment when I was told that this was not part of what they wanted to film and they did not want to waste a dive on it.
We did eventually find an octopus for them to film, but it was bittersweet to have discovered my first nesting female octopus and then be told that it wasnt in the script.
On another occasion, Jim was working with a German film crew in Saanich Inlet, and they had just arrived in Victoria that morning.
A bit jet-lagged, they did not want to do a full day on the water, so as part of
a familiarisation dive I had taken the cameraman down so that he could see what the bottom and visibility were like.
He took the camera just to test for leaks and check all functions. As luck would have it, we found an octopus at about 12m out in the open, a rare event. I moved over, picked up the octopus and held it for the cameraman. To my surprise, the octopus jetted straight up and just kept going! In about four breaths it had reached the surface, much to the surprise of the rest of the camera crew and my partner.
I had never had a giant Pacific octopus do this before, and I thought this was a great start to the shoot, a unique piece of footage!
Unfortunately, the cameraman had decided this was not something he was interested in, and did not get the shot. Little did he know what he had missed!
THE STAR OF REALITY TV
IN 1994, WHILE FILMING AN EPISODE of the popular US TV series Sport Diver, naturalist and photographer Doug Pemberton and the shows producer Danny Mauro had a giant Pacific octopus encounter that almost made them famous. As Doug recalled: We had headed out aboard the dive-boat Nautilus for four days of filming in Sechelt Inlet, north of Vancouver.
One of the dive sites was just outside Tzoonie Narrows, where at 21m I spotted crab carapaces and remains that indicated there might be an octopus under the nearby rock.
Just as I dropped lower to have a look with my hand-light, I landed directly on top of another octopus that was so well camouflaged I hadnt even seen it.
It immediately jetted off, with Danny in hot pursuit with his video camera.
I stayed at the rock and dropped closer to the bottom so that I could have a good look inside. Sure enough, there was an octopus at home.
I had my hands close to the entrance to the den and before long a single arm tip emerged and felt my left hand. Then a second arm came out and felt around my other hand.
A second later, the whole octopus seemed to explode from the den, enveloping my head. Ive encountered plenty of octopuses before and wasnt too concerned, but you dont want to let an octopus get a good grip on your mask or regulator, because that could become a big problem. And this one seemed determined to do just that.
So I started to pull at its arms to prevent losing my scuba mouthpiece.
In the meantime, Danny had seen the commotion and started to film the encounter, which he knew would make for entertaining television. He was having some trouble adjusting his buoyancy because he was fairly new to drysuit diving, but he managed to record most of Dougs mini-battle. Doug finally managed to extricate himself from the attention of the overly curious octopus and they continued their dive.
Little did Doug and Danny know what kind of media monster they had created.
After that episode of Sport Diver was released, Danny started getting phone calls out of the blue from reality TV shows that wanted to use the footage. Other shows took it even further, shooting re-creations of the event.
During the making of When Fun Turns To Fear, a limp white piece of fish-shop octopus was draped over Dougs mask in order to get the close-ups they needed. It looked so ridiculous that Doug and cameraman McDaniel nearly drowned, they laughed so hard. But that was only the beginning. This monster was taking on a life of its own.
Next came calls from producers with the Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams and Sally Jessie Raphael shows, wanting to fly Doug all over North America to tell rapt studio audiences how he was nearly devoured by a giant killer octopus. When Doug calmly explained that he was never in any real danger and that it was no big deal, they promptly said goodbye and hung up.
The video footage made its inevitable way onto YouTube, and millions around the world got to see Doug attacked. That generated even more interest from sensationalised reality shows. Doug notes that the only programme that treated the encounter with any sort of truthfulness was produced by the New Zealand Natural History Unit.
So why did a giant Pacific octopus leave the cold comforts of its den to climb all over Dougs head Theres no pat answer to that question. Octopuses are complex creatures and exhibit behaviours that often defy any reasonable explanation. Maybe Doug looked like dinner. Or perhaps the octopus was just seeking a little face time on YouTube.
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER
RANDY HAIGHT, a Vancouver Island videographer who has filmed cephalopods around the world, had his first octopus encounter in a dive shop in Australia in February 1983. A diver returning rental gear pulled a snail shell out of his buoyancy compensator pocket, and a small creature fell out and plopped on the floor. As I went to pick it up someone yelled: Dont touch it!
The shop-owner came running over with a spatula, scooped it up and put the blue-ringed octopus into his saltwater aquarium. He then explained that this golfball-sized animal could have killed me with one toxin-laden bite.
This scary revelation fascinated me, and from that point on I was completely hooked on octopuses.
Over the years I spent much of my time seeking out octopuses to learn more about them. At Saltery Bay, near my former home in Powell River, I had an unusual relationship with a 1.5m male giant Pacific octopus.
I used to take an oyster from shore and deliver it opened outside the den. After about six dives the octopus would emerge as I arrived, and we would interact briefly before it retreated with the snack.
I gave the oyster to other divers and stayed out of sight, but it wouldnt come out unless it could see me from the den.
Another 3m male I visited on Texada Island displayed similar tendencies
and really seemed to enjoy human interaction. I took divers there regularly to have an octopus experience. It would sit on my arm for several minutes while divers felt its arms and took pictures.
In September 1992, while on a film shoot at Quadra Island, BC, I noticed
a large octopus above us atop a rock outcrop. I watched it rear up and orient itself into the slight current.
I tried to signal the rest of the crew, but as I was doing the underwater lighting, I had to concentrate on my task. That peculiar behaviour seemed bizarre, almost surreal. I told the other divers about it, but I think they thought I was exaggerating.
In January 1998 my friend Hans Schmid and I were finishing off the last of his open-water dives in Powell River. Visibility was glorious, up to 30m.
When we arrived at a popular octopus dive site, a male octopus I was familiar with was sitting just outside his den. I noticed he had lost parts of a couple more arms since I had last visited him. Both Hans and I touched him briefly, then he shuffled off toward the largest rock on the featureless sand bottom. As it started up the rock, I got into a good position to shoot video.
When he started to rear up, I got so excited I could hardly contain myself.
The octopus oriented itself into the slight current and reared up into the water column. After the second time it reared up, Hans handled it briefly then released it. It went right back up on the rock and did it again.
Several times it reached out and gently grasped the lens of my underwater housing and my drysuit.
At one point I pulled off my glove to let him have a really good smell-taste of me. After about 40 minutes with this magnificent creature, I picked him up and carried him the short distance back to his den, and he slithered inside.
I dont know if Hans ever understood why I was so excited after getting out of the water, but of the hundreds of dives with octopuses I have done, this was perhaps the most extraordinary.
TEN FRIGID MINUTES
SCUBA INSTRUCTOR EXTRAORDINAIRE Jim Willoughby taught thousands to dive in BC and eventually retired near Powell River.
He has had plenty of photographic encounters with octopuses, but one in particular stands out.
As Jim recalled: I once received a call from National Enquirer about using one of my giant Pacific octopus photos. They wanted a photo of a lady diver holding an octopus, so I agreed to send them several slides, providing they promised not to make the octopus out as a slimy denizen of the deep that sinks ships and eats the crews.
In about a week I received another call, complaining that the girl in the photos was wearing a wetsuit. They informed me that she must be wearing
a bikini. After collecting myself, I calmly advised them of the water temperature in BC. In a few words, its very cold!
That didnt seem to bother them, as they still wanted to know if I could meet their request. When I hung up the phone, I wondered which insane asylum to check into.
After an extensive search, I finally found a gutsy young lady named Miriam March willing to do this. I had previously done some underwater photography at the Undersea Gardens in Victoria Harbour and explained the situation to them. The curator thought it would be great publicity and readily agreed to host us.
The Undersea Gardens is a building that floats in the harbour with the underwater viewing areas enclosed - it is much like an aquarium but is actually part of the ocean.
As my diving buddy David March and I submerged, the sight was breathtaking. We were in an enclosed area about 4m deep containing colourful rockfishes, anemones, wolf-eels and much more. But our mission was not about any of these creatures - we were looking for the elusive giant octopus.
Davids job was to find the octopus and bring it to Miriam. My job was to take as many pictures as I could of her holding it for the short time she could endure the frigid water.
It was a cold, bleak November day, and a brisk wind blew rain in sheets across Victoria Harbour. Miriam waited patiently, clad only in a tiny green bikini and her diving gear. She was covered with a huge blanket to keep her warm.
When I gave her the signal, she jumped in with grim determination and sheer guts, knowing she was about to accomplish something no one had ever attempted.
David handed her the octopus. The next few minutes were filled with clouds of ink, sucker discs, excitement and an occasional glimpse of Miriam, who almost lost her tank once and her mask twice. Amid this chaos it was my job to frame this thrashing mass of arms and Miriam and fire the shutter.
After an amazing 10 minutes immersed in the icy waters wrestling with this huge creature, Miriam had finally had enough!
From the cold waters of the Undersea Gardens emerged a tired, shaken but very brave lady. She had probably set a record -10 minutes in the frigid water with only a green bikini and a giant octopus to keep her warm.
The National Enquirer was very excited about the pictures. But their readers would never know how hard it is to get an underwater photo of a girl in a bikini holding a giant Pacific octopus!
SUPER SUCKERS: The Giant Pacific Octopus and Other Cephalopods of the Pacific Coast by James A Cosgrove and Neil McDaniel is published by Harbour Publishing (ISBN 9781550174663). It contains research and previously unpublished biological behaviours along with octopus legends, anecdotes from aquarists and divers and more than 150 colour photographs of this and other cephalopods including the Pacific red octopus and opalescent, stubby, Humboldt, neon flying and giant squid.
Softback, 208 pages, £22.50.
|THE GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS|
...lives in the North Pacific between Korea and Southern California
...is believed to reach a weight of as much as 270kg
...can have an arm-span of more than 9m
...lives for up to five years - a very long life for an octopus
...reproduces only once. The female dies once her eggs hatch
...could in theory support a weight of almost 13 tonnes
...has three hearts
...has a 62,000sq m home range
...has been known to travel 2km in under 24 hours