Mixing with the giant octopus
IT IS SIMPLY ARRANGED, but its intellect is impressive. It is deaf and cannot distinguish colours, but it can vary its own colours through a vast range. It has three hearts, blue blood and it must be conscious of every piece of food it eats, because its oesophagus passes through its brain. It bites its prey with a beak, or drills it with a tongue.
If it isn’t flying like a rocket, it’s walking on its arms. Using those arms, the male can both taste food and fertilise a female.
Whether watching documentaries about monsters of the deep or encountering a suckered tentacle in a seafood salad, people often fail to realise how interesting and mysterious the octopus is – and how generously nature has endowed it.
Like many divers, I was absorbed by the books by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and his descriptions of octopuses hiding in ancient amphorae, people dancing with octopuses and underwater cities of cephalopods. I wanted to see such things for myself.
YEARS LATER, WHEN I STARTED travelling the world with an underwater camera, I was always happy to meet octopuses. I asked dive guides where I could find them, and my collection of images was gradually enlarged.
Then I decided to undertake a journey dedicated to octopuses, on which each dive would unveil new observations, discoveries and photos.
I settled on the Sea of Japan on Russia’s Pacific coast as my destination.
One of the cephalopods inhabiting the area is the planet’s largest octopus – the giant pacific (Octopus dofleini).
It is found not only in the Sea of Japan but also in northern seas such as the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, and the coasts of Canada and the USA.
Sometimes it is caught 300m or more deep, but from April to September it comes closer to the shore. At this time a giant octopus is one of the most common species in shallow water (from the shoreline down to 20-30m), and from mid-July to October is the best time to see “walking” octopuses in numbers in the Sea of Japan.
I timed my visit to the Primorye region for August, when the water is comparatively warm. Smychka village lies 370 miles north of Vladivostok.
A forest extends along ledges to a pebble beach, and the seabed is sandy. Rocky ridges towering like mountain ranges form oases in this underwater desert. That is how the Senkina Shapka reef looks. Cliffs rise vertically from 18-20m depths to within a couple of metres of the surface, covered with jagged oyster shells and giant grey mussels.
Here and there blackened balls of sea urchins are seen, along with bright anemones arranged singly or in groups, and swaying groves of brown kelp.
There are many living creatures, though hardly the volume and diversity found in tropical waters. The water is clear but has the greenish tinge typical of a confluence of river and sea water (Primorye has many rivers and streams).
The temperature is 14°C, more than acceptable in a drysuit.
Within half an hour I feel comfortable in this new place. Having taken shots of the landscape and various invertebrates, I sink to the bottom of the reef, where scree stretches along the base of the wall. According to the guides, this is a favourite habitat for octopuses.
I scan the bottom for piles of empty shells, typically found outside octopuses’ holes, but either my eyes are untrained or octopuses simply aren’t found here.
As I start to lose hope, I detect some kind of inconsistency in a mishmash of rocky debris. The upper part of the stones is lit from above, but the lower part is drowned in shade – yet there is one boulder that is distinctly lighter underneath. I move closer, and a streak of light appears, split into distinct white-creamy circles. Realising that these are suckers, I gradually begin to distinguish the octopus’s body outline.
The animal’s ability to mimic is often described, but it’s different when you see it with your own eyes. Yet changing not only its colour but also its texture to match the surrounding rocks, why has it not taken into account the light suckers
Later I see an octopus, almost perfectly camouflaged on the bottom, twisting its tentacles into spirals and exposing to view the large suckers on its arms.
Such “decamouflaging” is, it seems, a tribute to communication, because sucker size is a kind of visiting card for octopuses.
Bears tear the bark on trees to mark their territory borders. They stretch to leave a mark at the maximum height. If a young landless bear comes across this “border post”, it can weigh up whether it has a chance of defeating the owner of the territory or not.
It also stretches up the trunk, and if it can reach or exceed the mark, a battle will be fought. So it is with the octopus’s sucker size. A smaller male, impressed by the size of white circles well-defined against a dark bottom, leaves the area.
If the sucker size is about the same as the newcomer’s, talks get underway.
Octopuses begin a confrontation by “measuring swords” with each other.
If an opponent takes you “by the throat”, and the length of your arms is not sufficient to stick to its body, it would be wiser to retreat. When priority is not detected, brute force solves the problem. Octopuses’ battles are very cruel, especially during the mating period (large octopuses sometimes even attack divers, taking them for rivals).
The winner of the duel is not magnanimous in victory. Often it simply eats the defeated enemy.
I carefully sneak up on the animal. The octopus, confident in its disguise, fails to react to the shadow hanging over it. I focus, and the eventual flash appears to detonate a colourful explosion.
Just a second ago the octopus could not be distinguished among the stones, grey-blue in colour, with some spots and cracks. The next second, the animal is burning like a red flame, its body size has grown by at least 50%, and its skin is swollen with pimples.
This is the next line of defence for an octopus: if you can’t hide from an enemy, try to scare it. Many unprepared fish would be enormously impressed, and while it recovers the octopus gets the few seconds it needs to retreat.
After the next camera flash, the octopus rises on its tentacles and moves slowly away. I keep moving around the mollusc, bombarding it with flashes.
As if wanting to show off all its available modes of movement, the octopus quietly travels to the water column and slides, smoothly and rhythmically swelling, then diminishing, its body. It’s a young octopus, about 1m long. I hope that my provocation will lead it to resort to the most extreme measure and deploy an ink bomb, but its emotional response is not that powerful.
It goes on swimming along the rocks, not even speeding up. We part only when my contents gauge says I must.
That was my first dive. I go on to meet up to five octopuses on almost every dive, from north to south of Primorye.
The smallest is palm-size, the largest as long as me and my fins (just over 2m).
Fishermen say (though not everyone believes them) that the biggest octopus fished exceeded 5m in length and weighed 272kg. I can’t imagine what a diver would feel on meeting such
a monster, but even a 2m octopus is impressive. On seeing that first one slowly leaving me behind, I am left in no doubt as to who is boss and who is guest.
Octopuses floating in broad daylight are an unmistakable sign of the approaching mating season. Male cephalopods transfer containers called spermatophores filled with semen.
Using its “hand of love” (the third right one, called the hectocotylus) it passes them into the female’s mantle cavity. Spermatophores of the giant octopus are also giant, at about 1m long.
AFTER MATING, the eight-handed Romeo dies. His Juliet begins making a comfortable “nursery”, usually a large cave which she cleans by flushing with water from her pallial funnel.
She then opens the “love letters” from the spouse that passed away several months before. Spermatophores have a sensitive hair at the end. When coming out of the oviduct, the eggs touch the hair and an explosion shoots billions of sperm cells into the female’s mantle cavity to be fertilised.
The female hangs garlands of eggs under the ceiling of her dungeon, and prepares to protect and keep her home clean. This may be a very long watch.
Maturation period for an egg depends on water temperature, and at high latitudes (the Bering Sea) may last up to two years, yet the heroic mother eats nothing during this period.
After the last larvae have hatched, the female dies from exhaustion.
It’s a drama worthy of Shakespeare.
Octopuses reproduce only once in a lifetime, so how do they reach such great size in three (rarely five) years
According to research, their appetite is quite modest: an adult consumes 1.2 - 1.4% of its weight per day, though a youngster eats more.
Here is another gift from nature – cephalopods absorb food with an unusually high degree of efficiency, so that 1kg of food adds 750g in weight!
A young octopus’s weight increases by 1% per day, and in vitro, with good food, they gain even more, up to 1.8%. If a human grew at that pace, the newborn would reach adult size in less than a year!
My dive-tour through Primorye flies by, and it’s soon time to head back to Vladivostok airport. My hard disk is brimful of RAW and JPEG files, and a kaleidoscope of red, blue and vari-coloured octopuses rotates against a greenish background before my eyes.
The trip has been a success, but I haven’t managed to do everything I wanted, or answer all my questions.
I want to see those colourful forested hills again, the white pebble beaches, clean rivers and noisy waterfalls. And I am already missing those multi-coloured octopuses.
Far East Dive, fareastdive.com