Fear and mythology thrive in absence of knowledge

The Kraken?! Devilfish?! Scary?! Dangerous?! Alien?!

The Kraken?! Devilfish?! Scary?! Dangerous?! Alien?!

Suggest such things about a Giant Pacific Octopus to any scuba diver respectful of marine life who has had an encounter with one of these gentle giants, and there is going to be a very strong response shattering such mythology.

As it always goes, fear and mythology thrive where there is absence of knowledge.

Any negative encounters between divers and Giant Pacific Octopuses that I am aware of, result from divers manhandling them ‘insisting’ on an encounter or involve individuals that are habituated to being fed by humans. We, as divers, are so fortunate to come across Giant Pacific Octopuses in their world where they are invertebrate royalty. We are able to meet them on their turf, and thereby know how inquisitive and intelligent they are. We know they are mighty, highly-adaptable predators.

And, we know, too, when we look into their eyes, that observation and assessment is being reciprocated.

That preamble was necessary before sharing what happened today. This did . . . .

I had been taking photographs of Lingcod males guarding their egg masses and noted that my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson was signalling me with her light, indicating that she had found something of particular interest.

I took a few more shots and then swam towards her and found . . .  my dive buddy with a Giant Pacific Octopus completely covering her face. Sorry that I missed that shot. I was so in awe of what I saw. Natasha is an incredibly skilled and experienced diver with a deep respect for marine life. She was clearly not afraid, nor was the octopus.

Natasha had taken the precaution of putting her hand over the regulator in her mouth in case the octopus took an interest in that but otherwise, allowed her to explore. I would learn later that, while waiting for me she had been watching the Copper Rockfish that you will see in all but one of the photos in my blog. This rockfish stuck very near the octopus. A buddy?  That I don’t know, but escorting a Giant Pacific Octopus on the hunt is a really good strategy. As the octopus flushes out animals from under rocks with his/her arms, the rockfish can grab the prey that do not end up under the octopus’ mantle.

While observing the rockfish, the Giant Pacific Octopus had slowly advanced toward Natasha and she remained where she was, intrigued at what would happened and having a contingency plan. When I started to take photos the Giant Pacific Octopus gradually backed away but had taken a particular interest in a clasp at the end of a bungee cord on Natasha’s gear. You can see how her arm was entwined around the cord and how there was some flashing of white in the skin. You can also see the Copper Rockfish! I believe this octopus was a female, thanks to feedback I received from self-admitted Cephalopod Geek supreme, Keely Langford of the Vancouver Aquarium. Octopus males have a “hectocotylus arm”.

In Giant Pacific Octopuses, it is the third arm on their right. The hectocotylus stores the spermatophores “packets of sex cells, two of which are handed over to a receptive female who stores them until ready to fertilize her eggs. Having the good fortune to get photos of the right side of this octopus, allowed me to see that the top of third arm on the right is not differentiated and that therefore, this was a female.

Back to recounting our adventure . . . .

After about a minute or two of gently tugging on the bungee cord, Ms. Giant Pacific Octopus let go.

Natasha swam a bit further off, allowing me a few minutes to marvel and photograph this beauty “the Giant Pacific Octopus and the Copper Rockfish.

When Natasha circled back, the octopus flashed a bit of white as you can see in the image online. Recognition?

We both found ourselves waving goodbye when we, regretfully, had to return to our terrestrial world.

So what to do when you find a Giant Pacific Octopus on your dive buddy’s head? Observe, marvel, take some photos, share and maybe it can help dispel some of the mythology and vilification about these fabulous marine neighbours.

Please note, I have shared our experience to reduce the misunderstanding and demonification of octopus NOT to stimulate diver attempts at interactions. It was an unsolicited gift experienced by those with a very high level of dive experience; knowledge of octopus (and dive buddy) behaviour; and solid safety protocols.

(Jackie Hildering is a biologist, avid scuba diver and marine educator living in Port McNeill.  See www.themarinedetective.ca.)

 

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