Saturday, April 30, 2022

An Homage to Cephalopods

The author spending some quality time with Sylvia, PTMSCs current octopus on exhibit

To all the disenchanted tide poolers out there, I have a message of hope for you: The cool stuff from your guidebooks is out there! You can stumble across something so sensational that you would give up every creature comfort to stay squatting in a 45 degree puddle of seawater for just five more minutes in its presence. So it went one fateful night last fall, and I do not exaggerate when I say I haven’t been the same since.

There’s nothing glamorous about tide pooling during Pacific Northwest winters. When the best low tides occur between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. and the weather conditions are stuck on a pleasant cycle of cold and/or wet, it takes a potent concoction of peer pressure and nothing interesting on the Netflix queue to inspire you to pull on your three layers minimum and get down to the beach.

These are times to dredge up some enthusiasm for stumbling around on algae-slick rocks with your neck craned at a 30-degree angle for 2-plus hours. Sure, that thing you’re squinting at could be the rare nudibranch you’ve been hankering to find, but odds are high it’s just another shrimp: low expectations paired with fervent, inexplicable optimism is a critical mindset should you choose to play the game. In other words, keep manifesting that an orca will breach right in front of you on the perfect moonlit night, but you had best be cultivating a bottomless passion for marine snails at the same time.

While I’ve yet to develop a particular fondness for periwinkles, thinking this way did keep me coming back to comb the Washington shorelines where I was born and raised for years. Tide pooling was my happy place, and so what if the coolest thing I ever found was a half-eaten flounder? I’d made my peace with intertidal mediocrity.

It should thus come as no surprise when I say that the night we found the giant Pacific octopus at a negative 1-foot tide foiled everything I’d concocted to keep myself content.

Octopuses were my gateway drug to all things under the sea. I can’t even remember when I started loving them with the fierceness of a horse girl; looking back on my childhood, it seems there was never a time when octopus paraphernalia wasn’t draped over my bed, walls, and for at least five Halloweens running, my person. There’s something about the obvious otherworldliness of their trailing suctioned arms and undulations that draws us in; their mirrored interest in us when we stare at them has a humanizing power to transform them into inimitable creatures often as unsettling as they are mesmerizing.

For the giant Pacific octopus, being in the spotlight is hardly novel: as the largest octopus species in the world, researchers, fisherfolk, and casual beachgoers alike have been drawn to their many-armed mystique and compellingly (if misguided) eerie narrative for centuries. Wander through almost any coastal community and you’re guaranteed to find art, lore, town flags, and at least one shop selling ironic t-shirts that reflect a long history of pride in and love for the deep blue spaces in our backyards. The PNW does a particularly savvy commercial job of grafting the iconic image of eight swirling arms and a wary horizontal pupil to our regional identity, and as the proud owner of one ridiculously plush stuffed octo larger than my head (his name is Alan), I can’t say I’m mad about it.

Drumming up erroneous myths of krakens and looking cute and cartoonish on logos is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the goodly contributions octopuses have made. Boasting the largest body mass to brain ratio, these enigmatic invertebrates came into focus in the marine sciences as “model organisms”1 due to their high level of cognitive-behavioral abilities (eg. tool use) and remarkably evolved sensory organs. Accounting for their ability to learn, memorize, and problem solve, their biology can serve as a sort of guidebook for understanding non-human intelligence. Unfortunately, their masterful camouflaging makes witnessing this innate cleverness in the wild very challenging for those of us who aren't regularly donning scuba gear or studying them in a lab.

While octopuses are intertidal creatures and known to travel relatively high up the shorelines to hunt, they are also crepuscular invertebrates (most active during dawn and dusk). Add to the mix their generally shy nature, and the challenges of searching for an animal that can change its color and texture to match its surroundings and travel across a beach by slipping through 2-inch rock crevices rise to daunting heights. Nevertheless, we had the dream, the drive, and a small collection bucket- and we were not giving up without a fight. With the winter low tides occurring later at night, we had high hopes that this drizzly November venture would be our lucky break.

My head was hung and my mind was planning a midnight snack as we trudged back towards our cars, when what should appear in the yellow column of my headlamp but two long, pale, suctioned arms sticking out from beneath a rock (see image 1). It was unrequited love at first sight. Beckoning the others over in a voice far more casual than what I thought I’d be capable of whilst reaching nirvana, we carefully lifted the rock the arms had retreated under- and behold! Out it came! Like a pink and white marbled piece of flotsam, this deflated bag-looking thing soundlessly flowed over the ground. We looked at it. It looked at us. We freaked out in barely contained whisper-shouts. It suddenly transformed into an old man with seashells tangled in his long white beard in a spray of sea foam, claimed it hailed from Poseidon’s court, and told us it would grant us three wishes.

Just kidding. Can’t have more than one dream come true at a time. Aside from the fact that we’d rudely busted into it’s hidey-hole, I’m fairly certain it didn’t care about us or the momentous encounter that was taking place one way or another. Hoping to get in its good graces after gently replacing the rock, we caught a shore crab and placed it outside its hiding spot as an offering. We watched for signs of life for another good 10 minutes (none were seen other than the sacrificial crab scuttling away), then left content in heart and mind, if rather damp in boot.

I regret to say that Lucky the octopus has not been seen since, despite revisits to the auspicious rock where it all began. But if there’s anything the years of fruitless searching for intertidal cephalopods have taught me… it's that getting a job at an aquarium is a great Plan B.

1 Nuwer, R. (2021). A Model Octopus. Scientific American, 324(8), 12-15. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0321-12.

Photoshoot with wild giant Pacific octopus found on Kinzie Beach, dubbed 'Lucky':

Image 1: The first sighting!

Image 2: What an octopus looks like in 2 inches of water

Video of octopus moving around