Gentle Encounters with Octopus

The octopus is the most intelligent of all the invertebrates. It is said that the octopus has the intelligence of a house cat—but I wouldn’t want to insult the octopus. Octopus are fascinating creatures with which to interact underwater. Although close, intimate observation is an experience not to be missed, these are delicate creatures that can be easily damaged even to the point of death. Although shy, they are quite curious, almost bold if they do not feel threatened.

Octopus normally move about at night but are only rarely seen at night because they are so busy foraging for food. Daytime is the best time for close observation.

You could come across an octopus by chance, either back in a hole or, more rarely, out in the open, but a better method of finding an octopus is to find their home by spotting the debris field outside their lairs. Octopus will frequently drag back to their holes crabs, lobster, clams and snails on their night foraging. It will then leisurely eat through the day, casting off empty shells outside its hole. Look for an unusually large concentration of empty shells and odds are an octopus hole is nearby.

Approach the hole low and slowly without casting a heavy dark shadow over the lair entrance. The octopus will feel safe within its hole because it knows it can quickly retreat at the slightest provocation. Wait patiently and move in as close as the octopus will allow which, in some cases, is a matter of just a few inches. At close range you can observe the intricate patterns and Chromophores in its skin, which it can change in color, texture and pattern almost second by second according to its needs and moods. Notice that if you move just a bit too quick, color patterns will shift.

Notice also the eyes. These are some of the best eyes in the underwater world. The pupils are elongated, like a cat’s and constrict and open in accordance with its degree of alarm. If you frighten it, the pupils will open wide. A relaxed octopus will have narrow pupils.

Now is where the real fun begins, but it is up to the octopus. If totally relaxed, the octopus may reach out a tentacle to investigate its new bubbling neighbor. Hold perfectly still and let it probe away. To make friends, you could offer the octopus a morsel of food. Fresh uncooked shrimp is best (of course, you’ll have to plan your dive already knowing where the octopus lair is located). While the food may get the octopus to relax more, and even perhaps extend a tentacle forth, it rarely coaxes them from their hole.

If you encounter an octopus out in the open on a reef, more and different opportunities present themselves. First, never grab at the octopus. They are almost impossible to hang on to, and in your wrestling you will rub off the octopus’s outer layer that protects it from infection and parasite attack. Grabbing an octopus could contribute to the octopus’s demise. If you find an octopus out in the open, again, approach it slow and low. Let it get used to your company and perceive you as no threat. Most of the time, it will flee but if not, you may be able to take your encounter to the next level. Lower your hand, palm down, and slowly move it toward the octopus. Work your hand under his arms. Sometimes he’ll just hop right on! Now you can bring him close to your face but watch out! If it is a larger octopus, he may decide to check out your face with all eight arms at once, pulling and prodding at regulator and mask. Resist the urge to pull him off forcefully. Just give him time and he will eventually come free and swim away.

The octopus is one of California’s most remarkable sea creatures. Using the right approach will lead to truly special encounters that can occupy an entire dive and fill a whole roll of film.

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