While we have many interesting invertebrate animals in the Pacific Northwest local and visiting divers alike unanimously favour the Giant Pacific Octopus as a favourite or encounter or the one they most look forward to.
Learning to See What You’re Looking For
John DeBoeck of Browning Pass Hideaway near Port Hardy is fond of saying that, “you might not see an octopus on every dive in the area, but at least one will probably see you”. I tend to think he’s on to something with that nugget of well-earned wisdom. Cephalopods (the taxonomic class that octos belong to) are generally masters of camouflage and the GPO is no exception. Octos and their relatives can not only change their colour but texture as well to blend in with their surroundings. More than once I have realized that a piece of kelp or soft coral was in fact an octopus only after seeing a tentacle move.
If not out in the open, Giant Pacific Octopuses (yes, that is technically the correct plural form) may actually be easier to spot if you have a decent dive light. Watch for crab carnage (shells) near rocky or artificial overhangs, especially along sandy bottoms. This is usually a good indication of an octopus den. They tend to leave quite a mess outside their front doors. Be considerate with your light, however, no one likes being blinded. A dive light with a generous flood may illuminate the den, without needing to be shone directly at the octo’s mantle (the mantle is essentially the head and body).
Curious Marine Life
One of the most amazing aspects of diving in BC, to me, is the diversity and abundance of marine life. What makes the marine life here even more enchanting is the fact that we have several animals in our waters that seem to be naturally curious towards those of us that go to take a closer look at them. The giant pacific octopus is one species that tends to have the most unique individual personalities. Some may be shy, reserved and apprehensive of divers, while others are intrigued by our very presence and seem to want to get an understanding of what they have encountered. Of course, this tends to mean that they want to get a tactile reference. I have had several octos reach out and touch me over the years, but nothing quite like an encounter Kevin and I had at a West Vancouver dive site recently. We came upon a large-ish GPO in approximately 7 metres of water, completely out in the open. We hung out and watched it for quite some time. It remained relatively motionless and maintained a rather dusky colouration for a couple of minutes. I moved closer to it, but didn’t touch it and tried to give it a comfortable amount of space. At this point it seemed to realize that we were quite aware of its presence and decided to try to figure us out. It reached out and ran a tentacle over my hand, then past my wrist, feeling my Xen bottom timer (I wonder if the OLED display attracted its attention) and reaching up to my elbow. Retracting its tentacle from my arm and glove it reached out with another arm and proceeded to do the same to Kevin. It then reached out to my hoses and light cord. I was uncertain of just what it was after on me, as I was unable to see exactly where it was reaching, Kevin had to clear this up after the dive. It became quite enamoured with the hoses and cord, reaching out with several tentacles and moving in very close. This was somewhat disconcerting, but I allowed it to go own for quite a bit. When I retreated a little it turned its attention to Kevin and tried to do the same. He seemed slightly less willing to submit to the inspection. This went back and forth for quite some time. Once satisfied that we were not that interesting, not edible and that our hoses weren’t another cephalopod with which to mate or who knows what, the animal returned to its hunt. We watched the creature scramble across the sandy bottom feeling for any potential prey and checking over and in the bottles that were scattered about for crabs or something else just as tasty.
Giant Pacific Octopuses seem to prefer crustaceans, but have been known to eat a variety of animals, including scallops, fish, small sharks and there’s even been some reports of the occasional shoreline or intertidal mammal or marine bird that has succumbed to a determined GPO. A popular video shows an octo taking down a seagull in Victoria.
Curiosity = Intelligence
The really cool thing about such displays of curiosity is that they betray the intellect of these invertebrates. Octopus have shown problem solving, memory and the ability to learn behavior through observation. For instance, incredibly, an octopus can watch another work to open a jar to get at the food inside and when presented with the task, use what they have seen to work to their advantage. This may not sound like much to some, but it places them among the smartest of animals. Furthermore, a species of octopus has recently been observed using objects as tools in the South Pacific.
Only 2 – 5 Years of Life
One of the most remarkable aspects of the GPO’s extreme intellect is that it develops over a rather short lifespan. These animals live between approximately 2-5 years on average. They reproduce only once: the male dies shortly after sharing their sperm with a female and the females devotedly tend to their eggs until they hatch. During this time the female constantly fans the eggs, ensuring oxygenated salt water continues to flow over them. Tragically, she does not leave the den, even to eat, so shortly after the young hatch, she dies. Imagine the intelligence these animals could display over the course of an extended lifetime.
Equally impressive is the size that these animals can reach in only a handful of years. The Giant Pacific Octopus continues to grow as long as they have food available. These creatures almost reach the size of the krakens of ancient seafarers’ legends. A few rare specimens have been caught or found and have weighed in over 200lbs. Some animals have measured over 20ft in arm span. Large animals can regularly grow to well over 10ft across. The largest suckers can easily exceed the size of a toonie.