The octopus making headlines this week was probably not—contrary to other claims—attempting to wrestle a diver or take a selfie. But then again, nice, curious invertebrates rarely make headlines.
Two divers, Warren Murray and David Malvestuto, were photographing wildlife in Bluefish Cove, off the cost of Carmel, California about 80 feet below the surface, NBC News reported. Murray, holding a large underwater camera, was approached by a giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), which soon enveloped the front of his sizeable camera, clasping on with its long arms and strong suckers. Malvestuto filmed the encounter as it ensued.
The so-called "wrestling match" lasted but 20 seconds, before the octopus swam off (some speculated it was scared off by flashes Murray triggered).
The octopus in question was probably not trying to attack the diver—a type of encounter that is rarely documented. It is more likely that the octopus was venturing forth to check out this strange contraption that has infiltrated its hunting grounds. Octopuses, though shy, are also intensely curious. And their behavioral propensities vary among individuals; research has shown some are far more daring and assertive than others—even within the same species.
A similar incident occurred a few years ago. A diver was swimming with a much smaller underwater camera, one that a curious octopus could easily swipe. This diver allowed the cephalopod to take his still-rolling camera. After a matter of minutes, the diver was able to recover his camera by chasing the octopus down and distracting it with the shank of his shiny spear (on which it took a ride, despite numerous gentle attempts to dislodge it).
The film taken during this thieving octopus's sojourn gives us a bit of an insight into what these animals might be doing when they fling themselves on an underwater camera. In between frames of darkness, we can see contracting arm muscles and prodding suckers. Octopuses use their suckers to "taste" their surroundings, using specialized chemosensors to sample what they're holding onto. So perhaps these octopuses just wanted to see if these humans were swimming around with giant bivalves that needed slurping.
*Update: 3/19/14: From comment by Warren Murray, underwater photographer who encountered the giant Pacific octopus in California: "That’s me in the video. And yes, it was not a wrestling match. I suspected that it was curious about my camera too. I think it may have seen its own reflection in the dome of my camera and decided to check it out. If you watch the video closely, it already was letting go before I started to flashing pictures of it. I think as soon as it figured out I was not another octopus, it lost interest. Of course the news articles have made it sound a lot more dramatic. It was truly a great experience that I will always remember."
To read more about the the amazing octopus, check out Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea.
Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen