An Octopus Encounter

An Octopus Encounter

In the fall of 1999, my ex-wife and I just spent a lovely long weekend sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands with 8 friends. We had many new wilderness experiences including an astounding encounter with a cephalopod, locally known as the Giant Pacific Octopus.

On day one we established a comfortable campsite on Jones Island. Day two was a day trip to Waldron Island, a challenging, 5 mile open water paddle. Upon reaching the island, we needed a break, so we beached ourselves on the rugged and rocky south shore, and carefully hoisted our kayaks onto the rocks.

Although not an official landing site, we found ourselves on a secluded shore surrounded by cliffs, some of which plunged directly into the water. The nautical map showed a sea wall dropping 600 feet along this shore; a diving boat arrived later near high tide, confirming the potential richness of sea life and enticing prospects for wall diving. A strong current flowed right up to shore, but kayaks are nimble boats. We opted for a landing we believed others would disregard even in an emergency, much less colonize for a sunny afternoon’s lunch break.

Turns out our unlikely lunch stop was an old fishing camp. There were hooks and gaffs hammered into the vertical rock walls to hold gill nets for snagging the former abundance of close passing salmon. The foundation of an old shack contained scattered coal bits and rusty pipes; near shore a graded area for salmon drying racks. Standing on the steep shore peering into the swift current, I imagined the bustle of fishermen netting thousands of fattened Chinooks on spring spawning runs on misty mornings of long ago.

As our other friends explored the interesting lunch site, Gil, Greg and I admired the purple starfish and colorful sponges from atop a 6 foot rock wall that sheltered a small tidal pool before the sea wall dropped off into the dark abyss. Greg offered to pluck a starfish from the pool below for examination, so he climbed down and returned with the sluggish five-legged aquatic creature.

The purple starfish has a tough hide, but underneath has hundreds of tiny tentacles for gripping rocks and capturing its food. Our starfish was busy digesting several small barnacles and some gooey matter that may at one time have been a sea anemone. As we held the startled starfish, its arms slowly recoiled at being out of its environment. Before returning the starfish to the water, we joked with Greg that when he dropped the starfish back into the water, to make sure it landed face-down so it could safely re-attached itself to a rock.

“An octopus will have that starfish for lunch if its softer underbelly is left exposed,” Gil mentioned, “I heard that somewhere.”

Greg cautiously tossed the slowly curling starfish into the water. Sure enough, it landed but flipped to rest upside down in two feet of water.

“Now look what you did Greg!” We joked, “he’s octopus bait for sure.”

No sooner than those words escaped our lips was I shocked to spy an ominous shadow creeping on the wall opposite our little protected tide pool perch where the upended starfish lay 6 feet below us. An octopus was moving with deftness along the wall, then across the floor of the pool towards our helpless starfish, as if on cue, arising from the depths of Puget Sound. A chill ran down our spines simultaneously.

“Good God,” I said, “it’s as if the Octopus heard the starfish screaming for help.”

The octopus moved like flowing water, masking itself by changing colors when it passed over rock or seaweed. It squeezed into narrow rock crevices then expanded to full size when gliding over wider rocks. It covered 15 feet in about 30 seconds, checking cracks and other, more secure starfish along the way. This was no apparition – the octopus was over two feet long from tip to tip with a head 6 inches in diameter. With our eyes transfixed and our jaws agape, we watched the octopus move directly beneath us towards the helpless upside-down starfish.

We could not move to help the starfish — this was nature in live, unedited magnificence. We were paralyzed, spectators to a struggle we know little about. Was this our punishment for upsetting the natural balance of the tidal pool? A karmic reminder that we are but food in the chain of life?

“Somebody must have been listening to us,” I reverently supplicated as the octopus hastened to the location below, positioning itself atop our doomed starfish.

We frantically waved over the rest of our party who were exploring other parts of the shore to witness this extraordinary octopus encounter. But no sooner did the others approach, the octopus moved away to the edge of the tidal pool and disappeared into the cool depths.

Copyrighted By Josh Gerak