Dancing With An Octopus

Enteroctopus Dofleini - Giant Pacific Octopus Photo by Kirt L. Onthank - wikipedia commons
Enteroctopus Dofleini – Giant Pacific Octopus
Photo by Kirt L. Onthank – wikipedia commons

The Pacific Northwest is home to the largest octopus species in the world, enteroctopus dofleini.  These creatures are generally shy and retiring; most of the time you need to diligently search cracks and overhangs to find one and you’ll get but a partial glimpse.   On this particular day I encountered a specimen that was anything but shy.

We were diving in the San Juan Islands off a boat called the Sea Wolf (now retired) out of Anacortes, Washington .  At the time I was still relatively new to diving, but had maybe 75 dives under my weight belt – enough to be relaxed in the strange world of the ocean bottom.  We dropped into an area that was fairly flat sea bottom with various rock formations scattered around.  Although it’s frowned upon in certain circles I ended up diving solo on this one, so there were no witnesses.

When I dive I often spend time looking for an Octopus or a Wolf Eel in promising looking nooks and crannies, and all the other things I might encounter just add to the experience.   In this case after looking under an overhang not only did I find an octopus, she decided to check me out.  Thus began the dance.

She began by scooting over to me along the seafloor, extending a few of her arms my direction.  Like a debutant at the ball I was a bit uncertain – in particular I wasn’t sure what might happen if she grabbed hold of the bottom with one set of arms and grabbed me with another.  So I did what any nervous deb might do – I retreated.  In this case up into the water column.

This did not put off my determined dance partner,  she just jetted off a bit (seeing an octopus propel itself by jetting water through its siphon is pretty cool), got above me, and started settling down on top of me.

This also was a bit off-putting.  I wasn’t sure what to do, so I swam out from under.

She wasn’t discouraged, she just did the same maneuver and we finished the do-se-do with her once again above me, setting in, arms outstretched.   I could tell from this vantage her size was about 7 feet from arm tip to arm tip.  Not huge as Pacific Octopus’s go, but still a nice size.  Again I chickened out and swam away.  Again she swam back above.

This time I decided it was time to stop acting like a wallflower at the dance, let her settle into a clasp, and see what happened.

Embed from Getty Images

My main concern was my air supply, so anytime I saw an arm headed towards my regulator (the bit you breath from) I gently grabbed that arm and pushed it away.  She’d pull that arm out of my grasp, and even though I was wearing 3/8 inch neoprene mitts, I could feel the suckers on that arm sliding through, and the strength in the arm.  As for the other arms, there were too many to keep track of, we’ll just assume she was doing what octopuses do at dances.

After a short session of dancing close, her curiosity had been sated and off she swam.  I too, headed back to the dive boat.

Naturally I told my story to the folks on the boat.  As I didn’t have any witnesses the reaction was pretty much “yeah, right, tell me another fish story.”  Fortunately, not long after my story, about 200 yards from the boat another diver nearly levitated out of the water, yelling something garbled that sounded like “get away!”.   Once they returned to the boat they told of an aggressive octopus that was chasing them around.  Vindication!

Although that diver was terrorized by his experience, for me that dance was the centerpiece  of one of my most memorable, enjoyable dives.   To this day, some 20 years later I can still see that image in my mind; an octopus above me, arms stretched wide, silhouetted against the shimmering surface, and settling in for the Octopus Waltz.

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10 thoughts on “Dancing With An Octopus

  1. Octopus are said to be bright, curious, and friendly (though why they would be friendly to us is anyone’s guess). Sounds like you handled the encounter well. I can’t bring myself to eat them, but I do eat squid. Dilemma here. Am I eating squid because they’re not so clever? Can that be right?

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    1. I’d say more curious than friendly. I prefer eating squid to octopus as well, but maybe just because I like finding them.

      Strange story: on a recent dive trip, a few of my fellow divers were spearing fish. One of them, while cleaning a good sized lingcod he shot, found a section of octopus leg in its stomach. He decided in addition to taking home the ling meat, he’d also take the octopus arm. Some people will eat anything.

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  3. That sounds like a wonderful experience. I’ve always been fascinated by octopuses and cuttlefish since my biology teacher at school told me they were super smart, but had managed to achieve this with what was more or less the body plan of a slug. It’s like someone started with a bicycle and turned it into a moon lander.

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    1. I suspect that might be due to the alien appearance of an octopus, and the fact they run big in the Pacific NW. I don’t find them scary at all, I’m much more cautious around other sea creatures. When on a dive, my local dive buddies and I will always flag each other down if we find an octopus or a wolf eel because we think they’re cool – we rarely do so for other fauna.

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