by Michael Quinn
I suppose that every diver has a favorite experience or site or even a particular bit of sea life that drives them to spend their energy and money trying to get underwater as much as possible.
For many, exploring sunken wrecks or caves becomes an obsession. For others, making contact with a whale shark or some other giant creature is what keeps them coming back.
For me, my entire diving experience, from beginning to end, boils down to one thing and one thing only: a constant search for octopuses. (That is the proper plural usage of the word octopus. I looked it up. Octopi is acceptable as well but sounds way more pretentious.)
Octopuses, or octopi, are Mollusks but more specifically Cephalopods. They have two eyes and four pairs of arms, which is probably their most distinctive feature.
Octopuses inhabit a variety of regions in the ocean but are most commonly found in coral reefs and pelagic waters. They eat food with a large, sharp beak that sits on the underside of their soft bodies.
They are invertebrates with no internal or external skeletons, allowing them to squeeze in and out of very tiny places, a good defensive technique. Another defensive move is the expulsion of ink to create a cloudy area to aid in their escape.
The thing that octopuses are most famous for, though, would be their camouflage and mimicry. Specialized skin cells allow the octopus to change colors that match their environment allowing them to almost disappear into the scenery.
By using their muscles the octopus can even change the texture of their skin to better match their surroundings whether it is smooth seaweed or bumpy rocks. The octopuses camouflage abilities are so great that they are quite difficult to spot which leads us to my personal obsession.
The thrill of the hunt is the first of three main reasons I spend most of my time underwater looking for these fascinating creatures. They’re really, really hard to find and they could be sitting right in front of your face without you noticing.
When you do find one the sense of accomplishment is palpable. I love that feeling. I also love showing off to my fellow divers when I discover one jammed in between two rocks so tightly that only about 2” is visible. But it’s there!
The second main reason I’m obsessed with octopi is their intelligence. Octopuses are widely considered the smartest invertebrate on the planet and have shown incredible problem solving abilities.
Octopuses in captivity have quite often learned how to get out of their tanks to search for food elsewhere in the building. It has also been widely reported that these 8-armed geniuses have snuck aboard boats to find crab and other delights in their holds.
Octopuses have even been known to use basic tools, including assembling broken pieces of coconuts to make a crude shelter.
As a diver I’m used to finding and watching all sorts of sea life but whenever I’ve encountered an octopus it’s been a slightly different experience. They stare right back.
It’s a bit unnerving actually especially knowing they have very keen eyesight. Octopuses will look you right in the face and hold your glaze until they are certain you’re not a threat and even then they keep checking back in with you just to be sure.
But the third, and most important, reason I have these incredible creatures on my mind is their color changing abilities. In my experience it isn’t that they change from one color to another periodically.
It’s more that they are in a constant state of change as their environment shifts around them. The range of colors they create with their skin is astounding and it happens instantly and continuously.
When you add the ability to change the texture of their skin the number of possible combinations becomes nearly infinite and each one is unique.
What that means is that spending a little time with an octopus moving out in the open is sort of like watching an incredible fireworks display condensed down into a blob of semi-translucent silicone. In other words, it’s awesome.
I have had the pleasure of just such interactions on more than one occasion. Most of my diving experience has been in and around the Caribbean where octopi are fairly common but I think the number of meetings with them over the last 20 years can still be counted on two hands.
My favorite moment occurred on a night dive in Bonaire where my buddy and I spent nearly 30 minutes following a Caribbean Reef Octopus along the top edge of a sharply sloping reef inside the Marine Park.
After spending a few minutes staring at each other this particular fellow seemed less worried about us than others I had met before and went about his business of skimming across the rocks looking for tasty morsels to suck up into his beak.
My buddy and I slowly circled him with our lights illuminating his actions beautifully. The color and textural changes were so dramatic, and happened so quickly, that its kind of hard to describe what the creature looked like.
What was clear, however, was that octopuses are perfectly adapted for life in a coral reef where the various rocks, coral formations, and other sea life make an almost infinite variety of hiding spaces and scenes to mimic.
One of the more fascinating parts of our encounter was watching him eat. He would wrap all eight of his arms around a particular rock and clamp down.
The soft skin between the tentacles would stretch out forming a kind of blanket that would seem to seal itself to the rock. His body then jerked a bit as his beak picked bits and pieces off the rock and consumed them. Once all the yummy parts were taken he would move on.
Having an encounter like that will stick with you. It’s the reason I dive, what keeps me coming back to the water, but there’s something different with octopuses. It feels less like observing animal life and more like the meeting of two sentient beings.
I am a guest in his or her world and that’s being made very clear. Finding and witnessing other sea life, exploring wrecks or navigating beautiful reefs are all wonderful experiences but, for me, it is all just filler.
It’s just something to pass the time as I move along with my real purpose: finding another octopus.