Octopus close up
When we do a night snorkel, we always hope to find an octopus. There is no creature in the sea so interesting to watch. The way they move, their reactions to our presence, their amazing camouflage all make the octopus a favourite animal to find on a snorkel. Because they are largely nocturnal, if you want a good chance of seeing an octopus you have to snorkel after dark.
It’s just getting dark, about 6:30 pm. We gather at the dining hall, and, carrying our snorkel gear, dive lights and regular headlamps, we hike down to the path along the north side of the island. As the trail passes into the littoral forest, we are immersed in deep twilight. Some turn on their headlamps. We don’t use our dive lights, because as bright at as they are, they use up the rechargeable batteries too quickly to waste them above the water.
We get to a point on the trail where the canopy opens up and the trail passes close to the water’s edge. This is the beach where we will enter the water and head to a cluster of patch reefs called The Octopus’s Garden. Shedding our excess clothing and donning our gear, we wade into the shallow water for a quick briefing before we start our swim. As I help one guest with his equipment, another one quietly and calmly gets my attention.
“Jack,” he says. “Do I have a jellyfish on my leg?”
He turns to show me the back of his calf, as I shine my light on it. For a moment I am baffled. There is a strange blob hanging from his calf, half out of the water. Then I see, radiating from the blob, a number of long, fleshy tentacles, some showing rows of suckers. It is an octopus, and it is clinging to his leg like a child that has climbed too far up the trunk of a tree and is afraid to fall.
I remember reading recently, that although is has been known for a long time that the blue-ringed octopus from the Pacific Ocean has a deadly venom in its saliva, only recently was it discovered that all species of octopus are at least mildly venomous. And here was one octopus, probably very nervous, clinging to the leg of a guest, its parrot-like beak, armed with a saliva of unknown toxicity, at point-blank range to his unprotected calf.
My first thought was that we must not frighten the octopus, which also meant we must not frighten the man. If he were to panic, he may panic his hitch-hiker. So keep it calm, keep it light, I thought.
“Wow,” I cried. “It’s an octopus! Now don’t move, let’s take a picture. Do you have a camera?”
I wanted to keep the man calm by giving him something else to think of and to give the octopus the opportunity to decide to leave on his own. Someone handed me a camera.
“Now hold still,” I told him. I took a couple of pictures. Others did the same. The octopus stayed put. Everyone was excited about the octopus but not so much as to make the situation worse. The octopus calmly clung to the man’s leg, and showed no sign of wanting to escape the paparazzi flashing him. I was content that the octopus did not seem too stressed. He wasn’t flashing red or blanching, he just displayed a normal pattern of reddish brown blotches and smooth skin. But it was time he left with his dignity intact.
I asked the man to slow move toward shore. Perhaps if the octopus felt he was getting too far out of the water, he would slide down and swim off before he became stranded. It didn’t work. He continued to cling. So I asked the man to move in deeper. He did but still the tenacious cephalopod refused to budge. So I very slowly and gingerly touched the tips of his tentacles farthest up his leg.
Octopuses have very sensitive tentacles, especially at the tips. They have an acute sense of touch and are also chemosensitive, that is they smell what they touch with the tips of their slender appendages. Octopuses tentacles are also very vulnerable. An octopus caught in the open will curl up his tentacles at the approach of a fish, as even small wrasses love to bite off the tips and eat them.
At first the octopus ignored the intrusion of my fingers against the tips of his tentacles. So I pushed against them, trying to lift them off the leg without actually grabbing hold. I was trying to be as non-threatening as possible, knowing how suddenly he could bite, with unknown consequences.
At the insistent pressure of my fingertips, the octopus began to withdraw his tentacles, peeling them off the man’s leg, and flowed into the water. He was free.
We watched for a moment as the octopus spread himself out on the shallow bottom, with arms spread and stretched out straight. He lay there for a moment, then swam off. There was a collective murmur from the crowd as we acknowledged how rare an encounter we just shared with such an amazing animal. Then we waded out and began our night snorkel. We saw a variety of interesting creatures that night, but nothing as astonishing as that octopus.