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Giant octopus

Tentacles of Terror

Just when you thought it was safe... Canadian Derek Holzapfel recounts the time when he came too close for comfort to a real monster of the deep: the giant Pacific octopus

On a rainy, overcast day in November in 2007, it was time for another weekly solo winter dive in rural Pender Island, in southern British Columbia, Canada, with the goal of photographing the many unique marine life forms in this area. It never occurred to me that this dive would lead to my most frightening underwater experience. 

In my 20 years of diving, I have never tired of the astonishing biodiversity in the waters around this island. The winter months are ideal for underwater photography, as the plankton dies off during the shorter days, and the silt runoff from the mainland is reduced by the mountain snow pack. The temperature at depth is usually around 7°C. 

Having waited until late afternoon for a slack tide, I hauled my gear down one of the ocean access trails. My dive started with a curious whitespotted greenling darting around me, and some macro photography of the delicate white gills of an alabaster nudibranch. To my disappointment, the ambient light slowly faded and the batteries died in my primary dive light, leaving me in the dark. I decided to continue the dive using the camera’s (very dim) LED spotting lights. 

Down at 21m, in near darkness, I was concentrating on some super macro shots of the intricate red patterns on the back of a vermillion star when a shadow emerged from the gloom. As I recognised a giant Pacific octopus coming towards me, I thought, ‘A friendly octopus coming to say hello – this should make for some great photography.’ How wrong I was. 

To my utter amazement, this huge creature lunged forward and latched onto me and my camera with four of its tentacles while using two others to anchor itself around a rock. I initially thought, ‘So this is how my life is going to end,’ followed by ‘Sure would be nice to get some more photos,’ and then ‘Okay, how do I get out of this?’ In a desperate move of self-defence, I pushed my dead flashlight into its body, but to no effect, and I was being pulled down by the cephalopod’s incredible strength. 

My mind raced: should I use my knife, or drop my weights, or let go of the camera gear, or inflate my suit? Fortunately, I was able to swing my fins onto a rock below me and push straight up. After a tug of war and much effort on my part, the octopus decided I was not fit for dinner and released me. I quickly moved to shallower water, and although I stopped to take some more pictures during the rest of the dive, I kept looking over my shoulder in fear of a sneak attack. I’m glad to say I was not followed. 

The giant Pacific octopus can reach a span of 8m and a weight of 50kg. I’d estimate that this specimen was 2.5–3m long across the tips of its arms. It is usually a shy creature and lives in deeper waters, so I was amazed that it stalked me, possibly in search of food. 

There are a few fantastic videos on the internet of an octopus killing sharks in an aquarium, attacking a remote submarine, and even assaulting another underwater photographer. I’d always assumed that this species ate only clams and crab, but sharks, fish and even birds seem to be on its menu. There are very few accounts of attacks on humans, and I found no mention of human fatalities. It does, however, seem that I’m not the only diver to have had an interesting octopus experience. 

Solo underwater photography has always been a careful, tranquil experience for me, but I was apprehensive when diving the same site the following week. Strangely, none of my dive buddies wanted to join me. Happily, my eight-legged friend wasn’t waiting and my unease soon disappeared. 

I look forward to photographing more giant Pacific octopus – but I’d prefer to keep them at ‘arm’s length’…

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