Day 173: Octopus love

I fell in love with Mr. Octopus when I walked into a November craft fair and spotted him across the room: towering above the sand and rock, beak reaching to the water’s surface over stiff extended arms, skin red, suction cups at attention.

“I love this picture,” I told the vendor, a friend of mine.

“Isn’t he great?” she said. “I took that one in the tide pool on the north end of the reef.”

“He’s amazing,” I said, “I haven’t seen an octopus yet, but I really want to.”

Laughing, she replied, “Then take him home. Hang him on your wall. Maybe build a little shrine, put out some candles. Commune with him. Become one with the octopus. And when he’s ready, he’ll reveal himself to you.”

So I did. I bought the picture, carried it home, and fixed it on a wall in my living room near some windows. I stopped short of a shrine, but I did spend a little time that afternoon talking with Mr. Octopus, wondering where he hangs out, trying to get his phone number.

The next morning, Nora and I went tide pooling with Jake, and Nora decided that she had to go snorkeling. I was reluctant – the tide was still a little high and we would have to slog our way through shin-deep water to get to the larger tide pools where we could snorkel. Plus it seemed a little early for Mr. Octopus to have felt my pleas for communion. I didn’t feel like I’d spent enough time meditating at his photo.

Take him home. Hang him on your wall. Maybe build a little shrine, put out some candles. Commune with him. Become one with the octopus. And when he’s ready, he’ll reveal himself to you.

H. Miller, underwater photographer extraordinaire

But my seven-year-old was determined, so we splosh-splished down the edge of the island to some tide pools and floated out over the reef. I hadn’t ever been on the far north end of this particular tide pool, so Nora and I kicked our way over to a corner with some shallow coral and small schools of fish, where we floated contentedly.

Then, with no fanfare, no pomp or circumstance, it happened. Poking out of a hole in the middle of a dome of bumpy coral, I saw an eye: a round, soulful circle with a horizontal black line. Then I saw a siphon – a tube located near the octopus’s eye that they use to propel themselves while swimming – fluttering open and closed.

He had revealed himself to me.

I planted my feet on the bottom of the tide pool and grabbed Nora’s hand.

“There’s an octopus,” I told her. Then I pointed to my eyes and back to the water. “Look.”

I submerged again, pointing at the hole where the octopus was hiding. After several attempts, I finally heard Nora close-mouthed scream in recognition. I waved an OK sign in her face, and she gave me one back. She had spotted Mr. Octopus.

Nora drew a picture of the two of us snorkeling over Mr. Octopus.

We spent 10 minutes circling the eerily handsome creature. He rose a little from his hiding spot, enough for us to see his mantle, the bulbous backside of an octopus’s head. Then he tucked himself back into his hole.

When Nora got cold, we splashed back out of the tide pool, warming ourselves on a rock in the sun, basking in the glory of the octopus.

But he wasn’t done.

Two weeks ago, I was standing on the edge of the same tide pool fixing my snorkel mask when a friend popped out of the water and yelled “Octopus!” We were snorkeling with a group – four other adults and three kids. My friend waved everyone over to where a group of three or four snorkelers were already gathered, floating face down while their snorkels pointed straight up. Brad and I quickly kicked our way over, desperately trying to see what they were already watching. Underwater, all communication is nonverbal, so everyone was excitedly gesturing at a spot in the reef, and I finally found Mr. Octopus, poking out of his hidey hole, watching all of us just as closely as we were watching him.

Eye of the octopus
A group of friends helped me find Mr. Octopus in a tide pool off the ocean side of Kwajalein. Photo by M. Lacaria.

As we watched, his skin shifted dramatically. One moment he was smooth like a peach with mottled red and pink skin. The next moment, he was an entirely different animal, bumpy and white, like a mound of leftover concrete next to a construction project. We all floated above him, snapping pictures and popping out of the water to check on our kids and to make sure we were all seeing the same thing.

I wanted to make sure Brad could see the octopus, so I hauled him above the water with me.

“Brad, do you see the octopus?”

“Yeah, he’s so cool! His camouflage is just like the rock!”

Octopus moving across a tide pool
Skirting around the tide pool, Mr. Octopus gave us a chance to see the suction cups on his eight arms. Photo by M. Lacaria.

Octopus, I’ve learned from a little reading, use something called chromatophores to change their skin to match their surroundings. Embedded in the skin, these tiny pigment-filled structures expand and relax, allowing cephalopods like squid, cuttlefish and octopus to quickly and dramatically change their appearance. They also have a protein called rhodopsin in their skin. Usually found in the retina lining the inside of your eye, way in the back, rhodopsin is light sensitive, and may also contribute to the uncanny camouflaging ability of an octopus.

In the case of Mr. Octopus, his color-shifting matched the play of the sun over the water, the rugged rock in the reef and the shadows the we snorkelers cast over him. His colors shifted as quickly as the flash of a magician’s cape or the flick of a match’s flame.

After our check in, Brad and I plunged our faces back into the water, patiently watching the octopus as he rose a little out of his hole, then sank back down, just a small lump with an eye. Up a little, down a little, as if he was leading a breathing exercise in a yoga class.

Suddenly, he was on the move. He rose out of his hidey hole in the reef and began swimming across the tide pool, head first, with each leg streaming behind him and ending in a curl at the tip, like a tendril of baby hair. The group followed him for 10 or 15 feet, trying to cautiously walk the line between observing this amazing creature and scaring it back under a rock. He stopped on one hunk of rock, covering it with his body and feeling the base of the rock with his arms, possibly searching for a tasty snack. Then he was off again for another rock, repeating the process before shooting across the sandy bottom of the reef floor and tucking himself into another hiding spot.

An octopus can mimic the texture of its surrounding as well as the colors. Photo by M. Lacaria.

Brad, who had been a little reluctant to join the snorkel group that morning, burst from the water, enthralled.

“Did you see how his arms curled, did you see how bright red he was, did you see him swimming?”

The tips on each arm curled into a Q as Mr. Octopus jettisoned himself across the tidepool, pushing water from its mantle through its siphon to generate propulsion. Photo by M. Lacaria.

I knew and understood the rapture in his voice. The instant you spy an octopus becomes the kind of brief shining, life altering moment that makes your skin feel like it should be glowing, a moment of irresistible magnetic attraction when all of your neurons are firing while oxytocin and pheromones flood your system. All you can do is give in and breathe in and out, a rhythmic communion with Mr. Octopus.