The Pacific Northwest is host to a magnificent menagerie of sea creatures, from the mythical sea monster Sisiutl to the marvelous killer whale. One of the most mysterious is the giant Pacific octopus, the largest octopus in the world. Our dried and stuffed specimen has been dangling from the beams at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 1917, or even before. (Can you find it in the vintage circa 1923 postcard below?)
There are around 300 species of these elusive denizens of the deep, and they can be found in all of the earth’s oceans. The tiniest is about the size of a single earbud, only half an inch long. At the opposite end of the spectrum our resident species Enteroctopus dofleini averages 16 feet from tentacle to tentacle. If you’re reading this at home, look up at the ceiling. Now, imagine your ceiling is twice as high. That’s how wide the octopus can throw its suckered arms! Is your mind boggled yet? No? Then picture capturing the monster specimen that weighed over 600 pounds and stretched out to 30 feet – that’s almost seven ironing boards laid end-to-end!
You might be tempted to think the sheer size of these gigantic cephalopods would make it hard to find housing. But though their size is truly prodigious, it helps to remember that they are completely and utterly boneless. The hardest part of an octopus’s entire body is its mouth, a sharp and pointy contraption that looks like a bird’s beak. If the beak will fit, the whole octopus will. The Seattle Aquarium website maintains that a mature octopus can fit through a hole “the size of a lemon.” (See that proved in the amateur video below.) The octopus’s ability to cram itself into the tiniest crevice and escape from any aquarium is the stuff of legend. Sometimes the only way to tell if an octopus is in residence in a sea cave is by the piles of crustacean shells littering the immediate area.
As a night hunter, it spends most of the day snoozing, and when the well-rested octopus oozes out of its cave in search of dinner, nary a fish, crab, shrimp, clam, or lobster, is safe. Octopuses have even been known to go after gulls bobbing in the surf, and to snatch sharks mid-swim... even to feast on other octopuses.
The octopus is also a master of disguise. Chameleonlike, an octopus can become “invisible” by altering its body colors to blend in with its surroundings (See below for a truly astonishing video!) No wonder they have the reputation of being elusive.
In addition to flexibility, we can add the quality of intelligence. Octopuses have learned to open jars, mimic other octopuses, and solve mazes in lab tests. I’m sure somewhere there is a lab rat with an inferiority complex.
So with its squishability, smarts, and appetite for anything that moves, why hasn’t the octopus taken over the seas? Longevity. The largest octopus lives only about five years, with both males and females lasting only a short time after breeding. Hardly enough time to create a watery empire. The female is a meticulous mother, but during the time she is attending to her eggs, she stops eating.
Hunting in an Octopus’s Garden
Up until recently, it was open season on octopuses. It was legal to take an octopus a day. GPO (Giant Pacific Octopus) numbers appear to be healthy in the Puget Sound, but this information is based greatly on a Seattle Aquarium-sponsored census taken by volunteers. Extremely popular with recreational divers, the octopus is now protected from hunting in a number of locations frequented by divers.
Octopuses or Octopi?
Q: What is the plural of “octopus” – octopi or octopuses?
A: You can’t go wrong here. The jury is still out on this one. We love our “octopi”—it makes us feel like proper grammarians – but the root word “octopus” comes from Greek, not Latin. Technically, the correct plural is “octopodes,” but just try running that by spellcheck!
• Learn about Octopus Week at the Seattle Aquarium, an annual occurrence
• How many giant octopuses live in Puget Sound?
• The Octopus News Magazine Online for friends of cephalopods
Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.