The giant Pacific octopus lurked within easy reach in a shallow hole, its large suckers giving away its strange existence. I reached in to shake hands; first it retreated, then it wrapped its suckers around my fingertips with a firm grasp and began to pull me in.
I was with my dive club on a trip to Neah Bay, Washington. Home of the Makah Indian nation, it’s near the most Northwest tip of the continental United States. It’s also home to some of the best cold water diving I’ve ever done. It was the last dive of the weekend.
People don’t think of reefs and cold water diving in the same mental breath. Say “reef”, and their mind goes to a multi hued structure full of bright corals and colorful fish in a warm water location, with the visibility 100 feet and the water an incredible blue. In the NW the visibility often runs 15-20 feet in murkier tan or greenish water, the water 46-50 degrees F, and most of the fish have subdued colors, but the reefs can be every bit as interesting.
We were diving a site we call Tiger Reef, not because it housed giant catfish, but for regular occurrences of the Tiger Rockfish.
Cold water reefs can also have corals, sponges, anemones, shellfish, hydroids, kelp, and many more fish varieties. Most common are Black Rockfish, but other rockfish species can be found, as well as Ling Cod and Sculpin.
But I’m always on the lookout for Wolf Eels and Octopus.
Both tuck away in a lair, finding either is an elaborate game of hide and seek. Nooks and crannies need a peek. A flashlight is a near requirement.
I’d already encountered a small wolf eel with the assistance of a dive buddy. Moving on, past a school of rockfish I spotted a tell tale row of suckers hidden in the rocks.
Octopus dens are often buried within a crack or crevice, out of easy reach. This one was accessible, ergo my effort to introduce myself. He was a good sized octopus, maybe 8-10 feet across if spread from arm tip to arm tip, and his grip on my gloved hand had an odd, searching, sucking pressure as he tasted and began to reel me in.
You might wonder why I’d stick my hand close to the business end of a giant octopus. Experience. This wasn’t my first dance.
His pull was firm, maybe 4 or 5 pounds of pressure. We enjoyed a hearty handshake for 30 seconds, each giving a sociable pull or two. I extracted myself and moved on.
50 yards on I found signs of another octopus. A regular den may be flagged by a pile of shells outside the front door. I looked in; he too was home, but too far in for introductions.
Continuing the game of hide and seek, I found another pile of shells. This lair was also occupied, this time it was a Wolf Eel. A big one. A head the size of a bowling ball filled the hole, skin the color of wizened white granite, he patiently looked at me with the face of a 1000-year-old man. A small China Rockfish hovered three nonchalant inches away from his nose. I could only wonder how much fish was behind that huge head, and if he was thinking “get that damn light out of my face and get off my porch!”
* * * * *
After returning to the boat we opted to take our non-diving guest, the wife of a member for an unexpected scenic ride. Leaving Waadah Island off of Neah Bay we headed up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to its end, Cape Flattery, as far NW as you can get in the continental United States. This was a treat for us too, we normally head back to camp after diving.
Conditions were perfect. Clear skies, temp in the upper 70’s, so little wind the water surface was like glass. Swells broke up the flatness of the water, giving a shimmer to the reflections. The boat powered along, the usual pounding of windier waves reduced to soft bumps.
At the Cape, 100-foot sheer cliffs with trees for bushy haircuts looked on. The water was Sea Green, accented with the colors and depth of emerald and jade. Kelp forests dotted the surface and a family of Sea Otters kicked back in its thickets, munching on urchins.
A gray whale surfaced 150 yards off, giving a brief glimpse of head and tail flukes as it dove again.
Rock formations poked through the surface. Mushrooms here, an eagle sculpture there. A light sea mist provided a soft filter to the shoreline, giving it an ethereal feel.
And I, as a supposed photographer could only look onto this gorgeous tableau, remembering all that camera gear I left back in camp, and think, “sucker!”