Sunday, May 20, 2012

St. John (Day 5, Part 2) - Octopus Sighting!

Now...on to the detailed story of my first octopus sighting!

I'm making a huge deal out of this, because I have always been absolutely fascinated by the octopus. As mentioned in another post, it's an animal I call an 'earth alien' because it seems like it could come out outer space (or at least an imaginative science fiction novel).  They have eight arms, no backbone, and a highly developed brain. They can problem solve, change skin color to match their background, change their skin texture to do the same, shoot ink to confuse their enemies, and squeeze their bodies through tiny holes far smaller than they are. They can even move around outside the water for limited amounts of time. Earth aliens!

In my reading about them, I had learned long ago that they are shy and prefer to hide than be seen. However, you can find the entry to their homes if you look for a small pile of empty oyster or clam shells (their principle food). So all through the years, I have been looking and eager to see an octopus in the wild. However, I have never been lucky enough to find one. The trip to Little Lameshur Bay changed my luck.

I was snorkeling well out into the bay along the rocks on the east side, when I saw five or six opened shells right along this large group of rocks. The shells looked so clean that I realized this was it. An octopus den must be nearby! So I looked at each hole and crevice I could find, searching for some hint of an octopus. Of course, knowing about their talent for camouflage I had to look very carefully or I might mistake the octopus for a piece of coral or rock. But I couldn't find it.

Then...BAM!...I realized it wasn't in the crevices at all. It was sitting right there on the side of the rock no more than a yard from me. It was colored to match the rock and curled up to hide its tentacles, but I was sure I'd found my quarry when I saw the eyes and the siphon. I moved around it a bit and could see the suckers on several of its tentacles.  It's head was about the size of a football but, because its tentacles were curled under it, I had no way to estimate how big it was. The thickness off the tentacles near the head made me think that for them to taper to a tip as they usually do that the tentacles would have to be 2 or 3 feet long, making for a diameter of 4 to 6 feet. Not enormous, but certainly big enough to send me into orbit! The picture above is not actually the type I saw, but it's pretty much the exact position I found mine in (just imagine most of the tentacles pulled up under or curled up around the base of the head, and the color matching the rock and you can get a fair idea.

Given the size and that there was no weird shape or pattern to it, I have to assume it was octopus briareus - the Caribbean reef octopus - which I assume is probably a pretty common type. This is a picture of an actual Caribbean reef octopus.  They seem to look like other octopi, but the only thing that makes me wonder if it might have been a different kind is that the pictures of the reef octopus I've seen seem to show a more extensive mantle with more connective tissue between the arms.  While I didn't see the arms of my octopus very well, it seemed as though the mantle ended much further up the arms.

Anyway, I was ecstatic! I just floated there watching him (he did nothing, so I guess I'm easily amused). His siphon pumped water, his eyes just watched me. I have to admit I did flap my fins towards him a little thinking I could get him to move, but he was far too smart to fall for such a puerile ploy. In any case, this sighting was the highlight of the trip for me and is something I have always wanted to see! Scratch that off the bucket list...(yeah, I am easily amused!).

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