Octopus Chronicles

Octopus Chronicles

Adventures and Discoveries with the Planet's Smartest Cephalopods

How Did a Giant Octopus Lose the Battle of Seattle?


Image of giant Pacific Octopus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bachrach44

This time last year, one unlucky Seattle octopus was reportedly beaten to death by a local diver and then brought home to be eaten for dinner.

The story riled cephalopod fans near and far and has been covered extensively in the press, including a feature story this past weekend in The New York Times Magazine.

The diver, a teenager who was collecting his first octopus for part of a school project as well as for dinner, had been made the villain of the infamous encounter. He was, however, abiding by the law and had a fishing license to collect marine life in the area. And accounts of the incident do suggest he was following the rules prohibiting instruments that would "penetrate or mutilate the body," such as a spear or knife. In fact he appears to have gotten the octopus very much by hand; he was described as "punching" the octopus repeatedly—for nearly half an hour—before overpowering it and carrying it to his truck.

From this, I can only think of the words of fictional film news anchorman Ron Burgundy, I'm not even mad; that's amazing.

The octopus in question was a giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) and this particular one was estimated to be about six feet long and weigh 80 pounds. The diver describes the initial encounter with the octopus in which he goaded it into attacking him. It then grabbed his body with its suckered arms and pulled out his regulator—a situation that seems like it could easily have turned deadly for the teen instead of the octopus.

Why? Each of the giant Pacific octopus's eight arms has 100 to 280 suckers, which can attach individually. And these suckers aren't wimpy. Octopus suckers can create a pull strong enough to cause cavitation of the water inside. Even small octopuses are strong enough to rip open uncooperative bivalves. And these cephalopods, no matter what their size, do not play by the no-puncture rules. An octopus will often use its sharp beak or spikey radula to dig into offenders. Finally, there is the simple math: as filmmaker Mike deGruy says, as a human, you're never going to win an arms race with an octopus.

Although octopuses usually go after prey smaller than themselves, they can use their strength to overpower substantial adversaries, including sharks. In fact, it was also in Seattle, at the Seattle Aquarium, that a giant Pacific octopus was filmed killing a shark a few years ago.

These animals can clearly hold their own in the natural world. And despite legal local hunting, scientific assessments have pegged the Puget Sound octopus population as plentiful.

But community uproar over the incident compelled the Washington Fish and Wildlife Service (WFWS) to list seven popular dive sights as off-limits for giant Pacific octopus collection. "Giant Pacific octopuses are one of [the] main attractions," Craig Burley, the Fish Management Division manager of the WFWS said in a prepared statement. "These new areas provide additional protection for the species and a greater chance for divers to see these fascinating animals."

So although most of the attention has been on the best way to handle local octopus hunting, perhaps equally as fascinating a question is how divers expect to bag these animals by hand—without getting bagged themselves. And why the headline was not "Teen Diver Killed and Eaten for Dinner By Octopus" instead of the other way around.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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