Southern California hosts a large variety of octopi (plural of octopus can be either octopi or octopuses) that can be found on almost any dive site. They love to hide in cracks and crevices and will even use discarded shells as shelter. Some of the more common octopi found here are California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculatus) and Eastern Pacific red octopus (Octopus rubescens).
The head or mantle can reach a circumference of up to seven inches and its tentacles can reach over twenty-three inches from tip to tip. With an average lifespan of up to three years, a female is capable of laying thousands of eggs. After brooding her young, the female usually dies exhausted and malnourished.
Octopi love to forage for food, feeling around for mussels and feeding on barnacles, crab and even shrimp. Grasping their prey, they bring it up into its hidden bird-like beak where the prey is also met with acidic secretions.
Octopi are classified in the Phylum as a mollusc and in the class of cephalopod and are thought to be some of the most intelligent invertebrates out there. They learn quickly and can use the suction cupped tentacles to twist lids off of jars and to grasp prey and objects.
What makes Octopi so photogenic? To start, their behavior manifests itself in several different ways including color changes, shape shifting and several different methods of locomotion. First, there is “the creep” where the octopi will extend its tentacles outward, pulling itself along the bottom. Then there is “the prance,” where an octopi will get up on the tips of its tentacles and tippy-toe along the bottom. Then there is “the boxer” pose, which is perhaps my favorite. The tough cephalopod incorporates the tippy-toe pose, but will curl two of the forward tentacles like an old-time fisticuff boxer.
These displays usually precede its quick method of locomotion, jetting. The octopus will inflate its mantle with water. Then force the water out from its jets and with a burst of speed and a squirt of ink, the octopus is gone. Often changing its color to resemble the substrate for camouflage.
Octopi have a keen sense of vision too. They’re slit-like eyeballs will often be the only thing you see peering out from its hidden lair while waiting for an unsuspecting passerby.
Each octopus seems to have its own personality ranging from docile to distress. Often times curious little octopi will come out and want to play, hopping into your hand or wrapping itself around your regulator hose. One thing that divers should refrain from though is trying to pry them out from their hidey-holes. Damage to the delicate little sea creatures will surely mean impending doom.
Now I have said it before and yes, I will say it again. Special gear isn’t needed to take great photos. Patience and a little anticipation are definitely needed, but if you’re lucky enough to happen across a friendly octopus, then photo ops will be bountiful.
Night divers know that octopi can be found on most any night dive, while they’re out and about, foraging for their next meal. Often times the octopus will use a blade of kelp to hide itself or jet up and into the water column to escape the bright dive lights. Juvenile octopus can usually be found at night as well. Oftentimes, these timid little creatures are no larger then the palm of your hand.
Recently while diving at Catalina, I found a two-spot octopus in a bottle. At first I thought perhaps she was brooding her young. Closely examining the bottle, I realized there were no eggs. So my next step was to wait her out. Slowly she began to creep out, then back into the bottle again, this went on for a while, so I just sat back and waited. Finally, the little octopus squeezed itself out, danced around a bit, and then in a flash, darted away.
I love to use my 60mm lense when shooting Octos for several reasons. The first is that I don’t have to be too close for candid photos. By standing back a bit I am able to catch them acting natural. Turning my camera from landscape (horizontal) to portrait (vertical) will often give the same subject a totally different composition. And allowing a creature like the octopus to have its own space, you’ll really have a great opportunity to watch them work.
Getting low to make eye contact then shooting at eye level will enhance your photo. Shooting several consecutive shots will help to show its color changes too. Octopuses are exceptional at blending in, so making your subject “pop” can be a real challenge.
The largest octopus that I have seen was in the Northern Channel Islands. Its mantel was the size of a basketball. It crept along the bottom so fast that I had a hard time keeping up with it. This was perhaps the first really rewarding interaction that I had ever experienced. From that point on, I was hooked, and now if I see an octopus I am compelled to watch it. These agile eight-legged cephalopods are full of character and charged with energy making them one of my favorite photogenic critters to shoot.
Special thanks to Sundiver Charters Seal Beach Ca.