By Brooke Morton
Due to their keen camouflage and seeming ability to outsmart us — as the video above attests — octopuses fascinate divers. The hunt is only the beginning: We scan reef and rubble for tentacles and shell piles, occasionally rewarded with an opportunity to discover this animal’s reactions. Will we be deceived, or do we give octopuses too much credit? How smart can a cousin of the clam really be?
BLUE-RING OCTOPUS, Heron Island, Australia
Few animals flash neon lights when angry. Enter the blue-ringed octopus: The peacock-blue circles that distinguish these four species also defend them, serving as a warning to potential predators who mistake the marks as eyes.
Perhaps the deadliest critter in the sea, the blue-ring packs a neurotoxin punch “far more poisonous than cyanide,” warns Dr. Lydia Mathger who has been studying mollusks for 12 years. The venom, which “can easily kill 30 people,” is spread through a bite or a rub against the skin. There is no antidote.
The Herculean defense enables the blue-ringed to enjoy a relatively leisurely lifestyle. The species rarely dashes out of shells and other hiding spots, making it hard to spot. Mathger recommends heading to the shallows to find them: overturn shells and peer into crevices. Most importantly, remember that thick neoprene gloves are a must.
WHEN TO GO Year-round
OPERATORS The Heron Island Marine Center at Heron Island Resort offers daily guided dive trips from three fully equipped dive boats.
PRICE TAG Boat dives cost $66 USD. A three-night, dive-inclusive stay for two people starts at $497 USD per night, and includes five dives a day and three meals a day for two people.
CARIBBEAN REEF OCTOPUS, Bonaire
The Caribbean reef octopus is among the most civilized cephalopods. Six species — including the common, Atlantic pygmy, Caribbean ocellate (aka two-spot), macropus and long-armed octopuses — all call Bonaire home, but no two species will likely be seen on the same dive. “They don’t overlap in time or space,” says Dr. Anderson. These time-share experts have divvied up hunting hours: Octopus briareus has dibs on the night — the darker the better. For best odds of encountering one, enter the water at or after midnight. Fin to sea grass beds where the predator stalks crabs and slipper lobsters. Another tactic? Look for their dens. Besides the telltale pile of bivalves — this species is a glutton for anything on the half shell — Anderson advises to scout for smooth stones. Often a pile of golf-ball sized algae-free rocks, used to barricade the entryway, mark an octopad.
John Wall, director of Buddy Dive’s photo center, suggests starting with a dive on the house reef, home to three or four octopuses at any given time. His other hotspots include the Salt Pier and along the reef’s edge at Something Special.
WHEN TO GO Year-round
OPERATORS Buddy Dive specializes in outfitting visitors for round-the-clock diving. Drive-up tank fills and truck rentals let you set the schedule. Plaza Resort also offers vehicle rental with their packages, which also includes all meals.
PRICE TAG At Buddy Dive, a drive-and-dive seven-night package, based on double occupancy in a studio, starts at $1,060 and includes unlimited shore diving, vehicle rental, daily breakfast and six boat dives per person. Plaza Resort’s weekly rates start at $1,250 per person, based on double occupancy.
GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS, Puget Sound, Washington
This much-shared YouTube clip proves the giant Pacific octopus’s death grip: first it robs Victor Huang of his video camera, trading it for his spear gun before finally retreating. The power of the world’s largest octopus species is undisputable. The largest scientist-recorded Enteroctopus dofleini weighed approximately 150 pounds and measured 20 feet across, arm tip to arm tip.
Dr. Anderson suggests sticking to depths between 40 and 90 feet and looking for the rubble pile, also called a midden, of discarded Dungeness and red rock crab shells. The species is crepuscular, so if possible, dive at dawn and dusk. If you’re feeling daring, Anderson suggests offering a crab or scuttling a bit with your fingers in front of the den to arouse its curiosity.
Divers will be able to find the species throughout Puget Sound. One of the easiest sites, reachable from shore, is Elliott Bay near the Seattle Aquarium. Hood Canal is another wildly popular area for prolific sightings. Photographers have even captured images of females guarding hundreds of thousands of eggs.
WHEN TO GO Winter is the best season for spotting giant Pacific octopus due to better visibility.
OPERATORS Pacific Adventure Dive Charters, based in the Pleasant Harbor Marina in Brinnon, Washington — a 90-minute drive from Olympia — offers charters aboard their 38-foot long heavily modified dive boat to sites in the Hood Canal, such as Black Point and Rosie’s Ravine. Post-dive, warm up with a hot shower aboard the boat.
PRICE TAG Two-tank dive trips cost $80, and include snacks, hot beverages and soup.
MIMIC OCTOPUS, Lembeh Strait
The mimic octopus is a living, breathing Rorschach inkblot test: The chameleon contorts into 13 different body positions resembling other species, but we assign the meaning, finding shapes such as flounder and sponges.
“Mimicry is one of the slipperiest subjects in science,” says Dr. Roger Hanlon, an expert in animal camouflage who prefers to call the phenomenon “deceptive resemblance.”
To find these creative contortionists, hire a guide, says Hanlon. Local experts such as Serge Abourjeily at NAD Lembeh Resort know what to look for. For starters, the octopus is found exclusively in the black-sand environment in depths ranging from six to 75 feet. The mimic is most commonly sighted in an “up-periscope” position with its head raised high above its body — much resembling a Cypress knee.
Abourjeily stresses a slow approach with limited exhalation. Stay still to study the odd behavior of this day-active species. One such move: They disappear for up to 5 minutes into the muck. “We don’t know how they breathe in the sand,” Hanlon says.
The mollusk’s ability to appear like a flounder impresses Hanlon as “quite an athletic move.” The mimic changes its position, rate of undulation and even the direction it typically swims. And why? Only large predators eat flounder, whereas a host of small critters will try to nip off a bit of tentacle. Apparently, shape-shifting has benefits.
WHEN TO GO “No one knows anything about the seasonality of the mimic octopus,” Hanlon says. However, mimics can be seen in the Lembeh Strait year-round.
OPERATORS NAD-Lembeh Diving Resort is a small resort with highly experienced guides — each with thousands of logged local dives — and two onsite photography pros. Some of the resort’s best sites for mimic octopuses include Rojos, Aer Bajo and Hairball.
PRICE TAG A seven-night, 17-dive package costs $876 in an AC room.
DID YOU KNOW?
1. Giant Pacific octopuses, which typically grow to eight feet in length and weigh 100 pounds, can wiggle their bodies through a baseball-size opening.
2. Octopuses can be trained visually to run mazes, even making detours when a new food source appears.
3. Every inch of an octopus’ skin tastes what it touches.
4. Octopuses quickly learn to recognize individuals. At the New England Aquarium, a giant Pacific octopus named Truman took an immediate dislike to a female volunteer (and only her), using his siphon to squirt a stream of water at her each time she entered the room.
5. Germans rallied behind Paul the Octopus each time he predicted a win for their national soccer team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup> When he chose Spain as the victors, livid fans hungered for sushi justice.