IF YOUVE BEEN DIVING LONG ENOUGH, youve probably heard your share of implausible stories about the 4m oceanic whitetip shark that menacingly cruised around some poor guy in ever-tightening circles while he was decompressing after salvaging the ships bell from a previously unknown shipwreck, and so on.
My fish story - more accurately, my invertebrate story - involves a giant eight-legged brigand with three hearts and suckers the size of dessert plates.
It happened last year on an uncommonly lovely late autumn day for the Pacific North-west. The sun was shining, there was no wind, and the view of Mount Rainier across the water was picture-postcard perfect.
Better yet, the protracted slack current predicted for the day promised a long, easy dive at Sunrise Beach Park at Gig Harbor, in Washington. Id planned to photograph the wolf eels and giant Pacific octopuses that crowd the dens
in the small rocky reef, which is prime real estate in the current-swept Tacoma Narrows.
My boyfriend Terry skipped the dive and took a book down to the beach. He was interested only in the Tides Tavern burgers, pounds-o-fries and beer that would follow the dive. So I invited along another regular dive buddy instead.
Eric is a 50-something native of the North-west who has been diving since he was a teenager. Hes the strong, silent type, a thrifty Norwegian who believes in getting his moneys worth by using meticulously maintained and nearly antique dive gear.
Impervious to cold, Eric makes sure to suck down every last bit of air in his tank. He does this on every dive, even when the wind is howling or the water so murky that you cant see your own feet without shining your dive light directly on them.
Eric was accompanied by Lisa, a doctoral student in physics. Although she was an experienced California diver, this would be her first dive in the Pacific North-west.
We pulled on our drysuits and schlepped our gear down the trail to the waters edge. I had lugged my precious new Nikon D-100 digital SLR camera along for some shooting practice. With its shiny aluminium camera housing, a metre of strobe arms, assorted cords and two strobes, the rig bore a striking resemblance to R2-D2, the robot in Star Wars.
After a long walk through the shallows, we descended and poked around one of the large boulders at the northern end of the reef.
I spent some time photographing a bug-eyed red Irish lord (Hemilepidotus hemilepidotus) and that was the last I saw of Lisa and Eric, who had ditched me to find something more interesting than a stationary photographer.
I trundled along by myself, enjoying a sun-dappled reef alive with glimmering schools of baitfish, pile perch, and green-eyed ratfish. Towards the south end of the reef, I shone my light under a ledge. My gaze was returned by the silver-dollar-sized eye of an octopus that looked to be at least 3.5 to 4m long.
I stretched a hand into his den, and touched the centre of a teacup-sized sucker. He stretched the tentacle over my hand and up my arm. He then reached tentatively with a second tentacle, and tugged on my glove, pulling it halfway off.
I unwrapped him from my arm and wondered whether I could get a good shot of the behemoth. I waited for several minutes, hoping that his curiosity might impel him to move forward, but he stayed put, continuing to observe me with an unflinching bloodshot eye. As the octopus wasnt coming out, I figured Id try to move in for a shot.
I wedged the cameras dome port under the lip of his den and stretched the strobes out to either side of him. While I struggled unsuccessfully to get a decent shot, the octopus slyly wrapped several tentacles around each strobe and pulled it into the den. I pulled back, and managed to free the left strobe arm.
As I was stretching it behind me so that the octopus couldnt reach it again, he managed to get a firm hold on the other strobe, and stretched the strobe arm out to its full length.
The wretched invertebrate sucked himself and my strobe into the back of the den and out of my reach.
We both wanted the camera, and a fierce tug-of-war ensued that involved 10 arms - eight of them belonging to my opponent. I swore and I tugged, and then I swore some more. I wedged myself against the wall and pulled furiously, cursing my wimpishness and resolving to start going to the gym to build up my upper body strength.
The tug-of-war went on for another 10 minutes, and neither of us was making any headway. I checked my gauges - I was running low on air.
I redoubled my efforts and vowed that the damned octopus was not going to get my new camera and my fancy new housing. It was a standoff, but I had only another couple of minutes before I had to swim in.
I reckoned that my only choice was to sacrifice one strobe to the octopus. I unclamped the strobe arm, but continued the tug of war until it was safe to stay no longer. At that moment, the strobe cord broke free from the strobe, which disappeared deep into the octopuss lair.
I swam into the beach and surfaced.
I waded towards Terry. Youre not going to believe what happened to me, I blurted out, brandishing the stricken camera before me. I gasped out my story amid torrents of laughter.
I had just lost hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, yet it was me that couldnt stop laughing. I wondered out loud whether my insurance company would cover theft-by-cephalopod, or whether my coverage was limited only to human robbers.
There was no sign of Eric and Lisa, so Terry and I hurried up the hill so that I could check the camera. The only damage, other than to my pride and purse, was a small amount of water in the housings strobe port. We flushed it with fresh water.
I peeled off my drysuit. I still couldnt stop laughing. I had, after all, been bested by a close relative of the common clam. I wrote out and posted a sign on a portable loo: STOLEN One Sea and Sea YS90 strobe and strobe arm, by an octopus at 60ft at the south end of the reef. If found, please call.... We then went down the beach to post another one on a hut near the waters edge.
Just then, Eric and Lisa surfaced and I told them what had happened.
Eric said that he had come along just after I had started to swim in, and had seen a dust plume like something that Roadrunner would have left after fleeing from Wiley Coyote.
Eric had investigated, and spotted the octopus with the strobe and strobe arm. He hadnt realised it was mine, and figured it was free booty if he could wrest it from the octopus.
He had grabbed for the strobe arm and fought until he, too, had run out of air and had had to give up. (I did feel a bit better that a big guy like Eric had also lost to a squishy opponent who supposedly wasnt as smart as my cat.)
By the time we had reached the top of the sandbank, Eric had decided that he was going to go back for the strobe.
He and Lisa had emptied their tanks on the dive and we had no extras. He proposed to take mine, but I told him I was not going to let him go back in the water with only the 20 bar remaining in my tank.
Eric, who is normally very shy, set his jaw stubbornly and approached a spearfishing couple who had just about packed up to leave.
They lent him a half-full tank and a speargun, and Eric marched back down the hill. He disappeared into the water, and we all waited on the beach expectantly.
Ten minutes later he surfaced, waving the spear in one hand and the strobe in the other. What happened Did you hurt the octopus I asked.
No, he replied. I used the spear to hook the strobe arm and then we had quite a tug-of-war.
He fought really hard, but eventually he got tired and I got the strobe away from him.
The strobe was a little scratched, but luckily Eric had wrested it back from the octopus before it had had a chance to unscrew the cap from the battery compartment.
Eric, youre my hero, I gushed. Lets head for the Tides Tavern, Ill treat you to lunch and all the beer you can drink.
The following day, I called the California dealership from which I had bought my camera housing, to ask what to do about the port I had flooded during the tug-of-war with the octopus.
I explained how the port had been flooded, expecting to receive a sceptical response. Instead, the repair technician responded in a flat, disinterested tone: Those pesky cephalopods. You must be from the Pacific North-west.
Youve heard this before I gasped.
Oh yes, he drawled. It happens all the time.
Eric has another Pacific octopus encounter but in open water - and this is with a comparatively small specimen.
Susan with her R2-D2 ensemble, all arms and legs
Eric the hero with the YS90 strobe.