Adam Taylor’s Close Encounters of the Octopus Kind
by Adam Taylor
My first encounter with an octopus in the wild was nearly 30 years ago and I remember it clearly. It was a cold day in late winter with fresh snow blanketing the North Shore Mountains. We were on our first open-water training dives off the Bowen Lodge/CNIB dock in Kwilákm. Our scuba instructor was islander Brian Hartwick, a marine biology professor who ran the Scientific Diving Program at Simon Fraser University. He was an octopus researcher and his familiarity and comfort level with octopus would help encourage my budding fascination with the ocean.
We followed Brian past colourful sea stars, urchins, and other creatures of the deep. Within a few minutes, Brian directed us to a large boulder and motioned for the first buddy pair to gently lay down on the sandy bottom nearby. He shone his light in a crack under the rock exposing an octopus in its den. Buddy pairs switched places and Brian signaled for us to take turns looking under the rock.
Brian then swam the first group maybe 30 feet away to show us yet another octopus in its den. This one reached out to explore his hand as it rested on the seabed nearby. I was instantly enthralled by this creature. As we were watching it, the octopus, in turn, was watching us through the wide opening in its den. The octopus’ colours and textures changed as it explored Brian’s gloves. I later learned that octopus’ suckers are the only parts of their body which cannot change colour or texture. The suckers are chemotactile, meaning they taste what they touch. One of the ways an octopus explores its world and determines what is edible is through touch. This fact would come into play on numerous future encounters.
Generally speaking, from an octopus’ point of view, any large animal up in the water column appears as a predator. When I am around an octopus, I gently settle onto a safe spot on the bottom, careful to sit a short distance away and not in the octopus’ direct line of travel. Over the years, I have been privileged to encounter many octopus, and with the exception of specimens hiding in objects collected for interpretive dives or underwater cleanups, the encounters have always been on the octopus’ terms. Interactions with wild animals are unpredictable and should not be sought out. Octopus, however, are highly intelligent and curious creatures and, if they feel comfortable, can initiate an encounter. A giant Pacific octopus is an extremely powerful animal. Divers encountering one should be very careful and only experienced divers should allow an octopus to interact.
Generally red in appearance, octopus have an amazing ability to blend into the background by changing both texture and colour. The most common sign of stress in octopus when they bleach white or flatten themselves on the bottom. When this occurs, it is time to move on and leave the octopus in peace.
Some of my favourite octopus encounters include:
In Kwilákm, three thumb-sized specimens emerged from old bottles collected for beachside interpretation with my niece and nephew’s Kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. One of their classmates, the child of a childhood friend, excitedly but politely interrupted from nearby touch tank while I was showing the kids sea stars “Uncle Adam, Uncle Adam, you even found us octopus!” Thinking he had mistaken a small sea star as an octopus I looked over and sure enough there were three juvenile octopus the size of a thumb exploring the tank.
In Seymour Bay my diving buddy and I encountered a smaller one to one and a half metre GPO out hunting. It was scooping the water facing into the current and appeared to be scenting for prey or a mate. Again, we set down gently off to the side of its direction of travel and, curiosity winning over caution, this octopus made a bee-line for my camera and started exploring it. In addition to gently keeping a low profile in the water column I find the bulk of my camera to create a distraction, especially when an octopus sees its reflection in the lens.
After an initial taste-test of my camera, the octopus disengaged and briefly explored my buddy’s gloved hand. Once it realized nothing was edible, it disengaged again and carried on the hunt.
Wanting to film the hunt, I again settled down off to the side in its direction of travel so it would not be blocked, but the octopus altered course, approached me again and climbed right up on top of my camera and started manipulating the light mounting arms. There I was eye-to-eye with a mesmerizing creature. Gentle colour patterns and flashing around its eye gave me the impression it was thinking or trying to communicate. After seven minutes it disengaged and carried on hunting. As it slid off my camera, I could make out the hectocotylus, or small groove male octopus have on the end of one arm which is used during mating .
We were lucky enough to see it capture a crab at the end of our encounter. While reviewing that footage I noted a small black shape float away from under its mantle. Turns out it stole a small foam float from my camera rig and must have been taking it home to see if it was edible.
Have a look at a video I took in Bowen’s Seymour Bay of a Giant Pacific Octopus on the hunt:
One thing I always found fascinating about octopus was how the good den locations, like a Bowen Island rental, never remain empty for long. Giant Pacific Octopus only live three to five years and in that time grow rapidly from the size of a grain of rice to up to six metres across. This requires a large range of den sizes as they outgrow one location then move into another. Octopi bring captured prey back to the den where they can eat it safely. I’ve been diving local sites for nearly 30 years and there are some dens which are almost always occupied. Those den locations, their size, and the nearby hunting opportunities made them ideal for octopus of a certain size. I often wonder if successive generations have ever utilized the same den.
There is something both beautiful and sad about the devotion of the mother octopus. About 40 days after mating, she attaches strings of small, fertilized eggs (10,000 to 70,000 in total) to rocks in a crevice, or under a boulder, her nesting den. She will spend the last six to seven months of her life gently grooming the eggs with her suckers and blowing water through the string of eggs to help keep the eggs clean and oxygenated until they hatch out as babies the size of a grain of rice. In most cases, the female survives the hatching and lingers in the den for another few weeks before she dies. She has not eaten for as long as 11 months and has lost more than 60% of her body weight. Mother octopus have been known to leave their dens before dying so her body doesn’t attract predators to the eggs.