The biggest weighed more than a quarter of a ton, and had an arm span longer than a London bus. Fred Bavendam went looking for the reclusive Pacific giant octopus in British Columbia, and found that these 'monsters' can reveal surprisingly human qualities
It was February and, 17m below the water's surface, daylight had been muted to twilight. The blue-green water at Whiskey Point in Discovery Passage was very clear. Looking towards the surface I could see my boat riding at anchor, extra cameras hanging on their lines. Peering into my viewfinder, I moved in until a bright yellow nudibranch filled the picture.
I took a second shot and felt something brush my left shoulder. Preoccupied, I dismissed it as kelp moving in the current, and continued shooting. After several more frames I felt a stronger tug, on my head and shoulder.
Turning, I found myself face to face with an octopus almost 2m across. One arm grasped my head, another my shoulder. On the underside of each arm were row upon row of large white suction discs.
A century and a quarter earlier, the French writer Victor Hugo had published his masterpiece, Toilers of the Sea.
A highlight was his description of a fight to the death between the hero, Gilliatt, and an immense octopus in a sea cave off Guernsey.
'What can be more horrible,' wrote Hugo, 'than to be clasped by those vicious thongs which adhere closely to the body by virtue of their many sharp points? Each of these points is an eternity of terrible, indescribable pain. It is as though one were being eaten alive by a hundred mouths, each of them too small. But the wound of these points is as nothing to that of the sucker discs. The points are the beast entering into your flesh. The discs are you, entering into the flesh of the monster.'
Hugo's colourful narrative made the octopus the rage of Paris for a time. Newspapers debated the dangers of the 'devil fish', restaurants featured octopus meat in special sauces, milliners created an 'octopus hat'. Hugo's descriptions were more fiction than fact, but for almost another century the creature would be regarded as one of the ocean's most dangerous denizens.
But Hugo was not altogether wrong. While no octopus in the Channel Islands ever approached the size of his fictional monster, half a world away, along the northern rim of the Pacific Ocean, an octopus of almost equal proportions certainly does exist.
I had come to cold Canadian waters in search of that giant octopus. Now it had found me.
The octopus was threatening to dislodge both my mask and regulator. Placing one hand on the mask, I pulled at its arm. It came free, but shifted my mask, causing it to fill with water. The arm on my shoulder dropped away.
In the 30 seconds it took to reposition the mask and blow out the water, the monster's intentions became clear.
Two of its arms were wrapped around one of my bright orange strobes, which it had begun to drag, still attached to the camera and a second strobe, towards a nearby cave.
For more than five minutes we grappled. Only by repeatedly dislodging one arm and then the other was I finally able to break the octopus's hold and regain possession of my camera and strobes. Thwarted, the monster retreated into its cave and glared out at me.
Unlike Gilliatt, I had never been mortally endangered, only slightly molested. But the surprise 'attack', which occurred early in my four-month octopus expedition to British Columbia, would remain one of the highlights of my many encounters with the giant octopus.
All octopuses belong to the cephalopod, or 'head-footed', group of molluscs. The Pacific giant octopus, Octopus dofleini, is the largest of all the world's scientifically described species and its three sub-species are found between California and southern Alaska, northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and Japan.
The generally accepted record was of awesome proportions, weighing 272kg and with an arm span of 9.6m. Most are far smaller.
The octopus has been 'rehabilitated' as scuba-divers have flocked to the sea. We now know that they prefer eating shellfish to people and are shy, sensitive animals that want to be left alone. They reflect many of man's own characteristics - territorialism, aggression, fear, intelligence and a genuine curiosity. They show individualistic traits, neighbours in the same feeding area preferring different types of food.
They are considered by most biologists to be the most intelligent of invertebrate animals, often described as having the same level of intelligence as a cat or a two-year-old human.
Giant octopus are known to be plentiful around Quadra Island in Discovery Passage. This is the home of Mike Richmond, who used to own a local dive centre and a man adept at finding these elusive creatures.
The previous August, when divers there discovered an octopus den, Mike called me and I rushed to see the find. The den was at 15m, beneath a large boulder. Peering in through a small opening, I could see the female octopus tending dozens of egg strands hanging from the roof. Each contained about 200 eggs and the octopus constantly worked her arms through them, removing bits of foreign matter that might contaminate them. She also directed spurts of water at them from her siphon to help aerate them.
I removed some smaller rocks and photographed her. I also took a few eggs before replacing the rocks.
Opening the eggs, I found yolks the size of a rice-grain. On each were two minute black spots, the beginnings of eyes. The giant octopus eggs had been laid recently, and I knew they had an incubation period of about six months.
I immediately began planning a return trip in winter, but in November. Mike called to tell me that the eggs had vanished, unhatched, and two days later the female had also disappeared. Despite this, I had decided to continue with my plans to photograph giant octopus.
A week after the octopus attack I met Jim Cosgrove, a biologist who over the past three years had captured 98 octopuses, weighing them and attaching tags before releasing them.
He told me that attacks were rare, but during winter large males moved into shallow water, presumably looking to mate, and were occasionally aggressive.
He said that almost all big octopuses were males. A female mates only once, usually when she is about three and a half years old and weighs some 15kg. Shortly after mating she chooses a nesting den, lays her eggs, and for the next six months remains with them, protecting them from predators, never leaving to feed. She dies soon after they hatch.
Males are also thought to die after mating, but they are capable of multiple matings, so possibly survive for a breeding season and, especially those that have less breeding success, may live longer than females.
The growth rate of immature octopuses is incredible. Jim captured and tagged one of 6.5kg and recaptured it 21 days later, when it weighed 9kg - a growth rate of 1.83 per cent a day!
Another animal, tagged and recaptured during the summer months, when they grow fastest, went from 8.5kg to 10.5kg in a week.
The average growth rate Jim had observed for octopuses in their third year was 0.81 per cent, so a 15kg octopus has doubled its weight at least 15 times since birth!
The following morning we located an occupied den at one of Jim's study sites. The octopus was flushed into the open with a squirt of dilute solution of bleach and Jim grabbed it. For several minutes it struggled, then gave in and sat calmly on Jim's arm.
Taking it ashore in a mesh bag, Jim carefully weighed the octopus. It was a 14kg male with an arm span of about 1.25m. Jim attached his tag to the webbing between the octopus's arms as quickly as possible to minimise stress on the animal. In fewer than five minutes, the octopus was on its way back to its den.
In another den we found a very different octopus. This one was 3m across! For almost 10 minutes Jim wrestled with it, keeping it up in the water column so that it couldn't grab onto rocks for leverage.
Several times it slipped from his grasp, and started to swim away, releasing a cloud of dark ink.
This is supposed to present a predator with a 'dummy' octopus to attack but Jim, of course, wasn't fooled. Eventually the octopus tired. Another male, it weighed 30kg, equal to the largest octopus Jim had captured during his three-year study.
After the dive I asked him whether the bleaching and forced removal hurt the octopus. Jim believed some found the experience unpleasant enough to drive them from the area, but many repeated recaptures indicated that no physical damage was inflicted.
The giant octopus seems rarely to occupy the same den for more than a few months. It is also less nocturnal than most, and often hunts in daylight.
As for time out of the water, Jim once watched an octopus foraging for crabs among rocks at the water's edge. At one point it crawled out of the water and up and over a large boulder before re-entering on the other side.
Why had the big octopus tired so quickly? Jim explained that the oxygen-carrying component of octopus blood is a copper-based compound called haemocyanin, which gives it a pale blue colour and is a far less efficient oxygen-carrier than our iron-based haemoglobin.
Twenty years before, Jim was a student working weekends at an aquarium in Victoria. His job as a diver was to coax an octopus from an artificial den and hold it up to the glass for visitors to see.
Checking behind the glass fibre rock one day, Jim noticed two octopuses there, which was unusual. Reaching in, he began to rouse one. They started moving around, arms came out, and as one slid past his mask, Jim saw the suction discs getting bigger and bigger, and realised his mistake. There was only one, very big octopus!
As it emerged it grabbed Jim, completely wrapping him in its arms, one of which held onto the back wall of the aquarium, while another stretched to the viewing window almost 5m away.
'I was trussed up like a Christmas turkey,' says Jim. 'All I could do was hold my regulator in my mouth with both hands and lie as still as possible. After dragging me around the tank for five minutes, the octopus lost interest and let me go.'
All the while, the two professional collectors who had captured the octopus the day before were in the visitors' gallery, laughing their heads off. That specimen, the largest Jim has seen in more than 3000 dives, had an arm span of almost 7m and weighed 71kg.
During my remaining months at Quadra I located several dens in a small cove, and checked them regularly. If the octopus was not in the den I rarely found it, because of its chameleon-like ability to mimic its surroundings.
Once I checked a rocky slope below a small cliff but, finding nothing, decided to photograph a grazing abalone. Settling to the bottom, I put my hand on a rock. It was soft! The rock was an octopus, camouflaged so well I hadn't seen it, even though I had swum past it several times.
Another time I came across an octopus hunting on a muddy bottom. It would sit still as though deciding which way to go, then dart forward 2 or 3m, only the tips of its arms touching the bottom. After each dash it would drop to the seabed with the webbing between its arms spread wide like a parachute, trapping shrimp or small crabs beneath it.
As it dropped, it would change from orange to pale white, perhaps to present less of a silhouette against the surface and cause its prey to hesitate a fatal moment longer.
By May the kelp had regrown and the first spring plankton bloom had been triggered. Octopuses became harder to find. One afternoon I met Mike and a returning boatload of divers at the dock. Mike had been anchoring for a dive at Argonaut Wharf when a fisherman threw a small shark he had caught and killed back into the water.
As the divers entered, an octopus had appeared, grabbed the shark and dragged it beneath a cement block.
I sped across the channel and easily found the octopus and shark. They were too far under the block for good pictures so I yanked the shark from the octopus's grasp and left it on the sand. I waited up among the wharf pilings, and 20 minutes later the octopus went for the shark.
I descended between the octopus and its den. The octopus wanted to retreat but also wanted its meal. After a few minutes it seemed to decide that I wasn't a threat and began eating, blocking the shark from my view with its webbing.
I reached out and pulled the shark; the octopus let go. I put the shark back and the octopus reclaimed it.
That scene repeated itself several times until, out of film, I gathered both octopus and shark in my arms and carried them back to the den.
The octopus dragged the shark beneath the cement block, no doubt hoping to finish eating in peace.
My most unusual encounter occurred in March, on a late-afternoon dive on a deep, current-swept reef, when I found an octopus clinging to the side of a rock. I touched it but it gave no indication of being aware of me.
I began to pull it from the rock, arm by arm, and as it came free I handed it to a friend, Roger, so that I could photograph them. The octopus remained in a ball, and Roger began to spin it slowly, while I waited for the arms to flare out.
As it revolved, I suddenly realised that there were two octopuses, locked together with their arms intertwined. Something unusual was going on, but I had a fisheye lens on my camera and could stay only a few more minutes at 25m.
Cradling both octopuses, I ascended to Mike's boat, expecting them to come to life at any moment, but they remained oblivious. Mike filled the large cooler I use for transporting my camera and strobes with sea water and they were lifted into it with no resistance.
Were they mating? We didn't know the sex of either animal and didn't want to disturb them further.
The larger octopus had several large tears in its webbing and had seemed particularly unresponsive. Perhaps it was dying and the smaller octopus had decided to try eating it, which seemed to make more sense.
Hurriedly changing cameras and cylinders, we headed for a shallow spot in the harbour. Night had fallen. I took the octopuses back down, but just as I reached the bottom, the smaller one tried to escape. I caught it and placed the two side by side.
As soon as its arm touched the larger octopus, the smaller one flushed bright red. Then it climbed on top of it, trying to envelop it in its webbing. We took pictures for an hour. At one point I saw an arm reaching into the mantle of the larger octopus. At the last moment, I put both octopuses in mesh bags and ascended with my final breath of air.
The smaller one resisted but the larger one still barely moved. Cold and exhausted, we hung them on a float and headed back to the dock.
The following morning I ascertained that the larger octopus was female and the smaller one male. The female had no signs of bite marks and was moving, but only sluggishly. By the afternoon she had revived and was difficult to control, inking me several times. At the end of the dive she vigorously resisted being put back in the bag, and next day we discovered that she had ripped her way out.
The third arm on the right side of a male octopus is modified for mating. On a mature giant octopus this modified section, the hectocotylus, is conspicuous because the last 15cm or so of the arm carries no suction discs.
During mating the hectocotylus is used to transfer a sperm-containing tube, the spermatophore, from his body into the female's, reaching into her mantle cavity and inserting one end of the tube into one of her oviducts. The pictures I took show one of the male's arms reaching into the female's mantle, but identifying which arm was difficult.
Usually during mating the male is thought to sit near the female, not on top of her, and reaches over to her with his hectocotylus. I saw no spermatophore being transferred, but most of the time the male had obscured my view of the female's mantle openings. Jim Cosgrove was convinced that they were mating. I might have interrupted them before the spermatophore transfer had been accomplished.
In autumn I returned to British Columbia for some pleasure diving to find that Jim was monitoring two nesting dens near Victoria. He expected the eggs to hatch within eight weeks. He had found four other nests that had recently hatched out, and in still another had found a female with freshly laid eggs, but several weeks later both eggs and female had again disappeared.
A month later a friend of Mike's told him that one of the female octopuses had died. We found the lifeless form, grey and severely emaciated. Strand on strand of eggs hung down, full of unborn octopuses doomed by their mother's death. Already small crabs were eating some of the eggs, and soon seastars and fish would join the feast.
Jim removed handfuls of eggs, and back on shore we weighed the female. She was under 6kg, less than half the weight at the beginning of her ordeal.
Jim estimated that the nest had held almost 70,000 eggs. He placed them in an aerated coldwater aquarium, hoping to hatch them and later release the newborn octopuses.
The following afternoon, in the second nesting den, we found the female still alive, but her movements were slow and weak as Jim collected egg strand samples.
Late that evening the eggs began to hatch. Little by little, 7mm octopuses pushed their way out and swam jerkily around a pail. They had huge eyes and small arms, with already distinct suction discs, and every so often one would expel a tiny ink decoy. The life cycle had come full circle, ending with the death of a devoted mother, and beginning with a new generation.
Observe how an octopus behaves and watches you and it becomes difficult not to ascribe human behaviour and reasoning processes to it.
Not very scientific, but in more than a dozen years of diving and photographing marine life, I have never spent so much time with an animal yet been left with so many unanswered questions as I have with the giant octopus.
Appeared in DIVER - May 2000