After its canoe sank, the rat was offered a ride to shore by a passing octopus. The rat gladly jumped on the octopus’s head, was shuttled to a nearby island and after leaping to safety, shouted “Thanks Octopus, I left you a little present on your head!” With a tentacle, the octopus discovered that the rat had left a pile of excrement as its parting gift. Ever since, when an octopus spots a rat, it convulses with rage.
I first heard this story while seated cross-legged in a small thatched falé in Kolovai, a tiny village perched along the western neck of Tongatapu, the largest of a chain of jewel-like islets that comprise the Kingdom of Tonga. Sprinkled just west of the International Date Line, Tonga breathes life into each new day. I’d been there just a few months, a Peace Corps volunteer teacher at the village middle school. On Friday nights, village men assembled to quaff kava, a murky, slightly narcotic brew concocted from the dried root of a tropical evergreen, Piper methysticum. Fortified by the drink, they shared news of the day, sang traditional songs, and tried to bring Salesi, their new volunteer, up to speed on legends and life—anga fakatonga—the Tongan Way.
Outside the haystack of flip flops mounded at the doorway, children whispered into the night: “Where’s the papalangi from? Is he married? How many children does he have? He has blond hair! Look at the mustache!” Pungent smoke from cooking fires mingled with frangipani-scented air, a pleasant affiliation that has remained with me for decades. Fruit bats squabbled in the ironwood trees lining a single, narrow dirt road bisecting town. They had yet to reach consensus about when to lift off en masse for the bush. At the northern end of that road was mui fonua, the Tongan word for “lands-end” and where a long run of talcum white sand, Ha’atafu beach, was massaged by water the color of a bluebird’s plumage.
In the shallows immediately offshore were lovely corals that would detonate my notion of color, shape and texture. A hundred meters beyond, the fringing reef spilled into inky depths patrolled by schools of tuna, snappers, and Giant trevally. A platoon of Bumphead parrotfish well north of fifty pounds apiece might also be seen. Hefty barracuda that had graduated from the shallows to the big time often came calling. So too the occasional reef shark or two. Or more. Beneath this oft active zone of improbability, the light went uninvited. There thrived the myth-makers of my childhood. One in particular took center stage, the giant squid grappling with Captain Nemo’s submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. Thank you for that, Jules Verne.
Tentacled creatures such as the giant squid are a special breed of mythological marvel. Long before Jaws, there was the kraken, a catchall term for giant octopuses and squids bent on havoc. A symbol of evil in print, illustration and film, the octopuses—for centuries known as devilfish—occupied the dark alleys of every mariner’s imagination. In his vivid woodcut of 1810, Poulpe Colossal, the French malacologist Pierre Denys de Montfort brought every sailor’s nightmare to life, depicting a bug-eyed octopus overpowering a sailboat. The work was based on stories told by whalers who claimed to have seen evidence of such giants at sea.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck’s octopus is a “creeping murderer” with “evil goat eyes.” Victor Hugo chillingly called the octopus “one of those embryos of terrible things that the dreamer glimpses confusedly through the window of night.” In exile on the island of Guernsey, Hugo sent Gilliatt the fisherman to battle an enormous octopus in Les Travailleurs de la mer (The Toilers of the Sea). “Compared to the devilfish,” he wrote, “the hydras of old bring a smile to the lips.”
Culturally familiar thanks in part to pulp fiction of the mid 20th-century, octopuses engulf superheroes, divers, and damsels in distress. Hollywood promoted them as shiver-inducing creatures large and small. A Golden Gate-sized specimen snacks on San Franciscans in the 1955 thriller, It Came From Beneath the Sea. Even Disney found the image of a wicked octopus irresistible, creating Ursula as a nefarious creature opposite the winsome Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Leading men from King Kong to 007 have had to contend with suckered appendages. Within the pages of Ian Fleming’s Octopussy, James Bond kept tabs on his femme fatale’s pet blue-ringed octopus, whose toxic bite leads to death within minutes, and did for one unfortunate assailant.
Yet, as science unveils the octopus and its secrets, they’ve become less threatening and more fascinating. In his 1940 essay, In Defense of Octopuses, the naturalist Gilbert Klingel wrote, “I feel about octopuses—as Mark Twain did about the devil—that someone should undertake their rehabilitation.” Soon after, Jacques-Yves Cousteau began that process by bringing octopuses into our living rooms. Today, rather than feared, the octopus is on many a reef-visitor’s must-see list. But during my early months in Tonga, they weren’t on mine.
I taught myself how to spearfish in the waters off Ha’atafu to augment the limited diet of root crops and tinned meats available in the village. It was a tricky place to fish because the entry and exit were made by swimming through a channel; time it the wrong way and one could be trapped outside the reef with no way to return against the ebbing tidal waters. On one occasion I barely made it back. Watching from shore, my friend Sione told me of puzzling out the proper way to handle my putu, Tongan for funeral.
Spearfishing was a way to make friends and navigate a cultural byway that could be fun and challenging at the same time. New words entered my vocabulary. In the back of my mind, a grouper is still ngatala, parrotfish hohomo, and it was time to get out of the water when the tenifa, tiger shark, did more than just a drive-by peek at our dangling limbs. In the company of burly Tongans, I became a hunter with interest solely in that night’s dinner. Whatever else the reef had to offer meant little. I finned quickly across the shallows, intent only on reaching deeper water as quickly as possible. Once there, I stalked groupers and snappers that folded themselves under ledges or into caves. I might hover at depth, matching my breath-hold against the curiosity of large fish, any one of which meant food for many. At the time, regarding the coral reef as more than just backdrop to the hunt would be like asking a deer hunter to examine a patch of wildflowers while a ten point buck passed nearby.
I can’t say when it was that my hunter’s eye lost focus, when I first noticed the reef’s symphony. It had been playing all this time; I just hadn’t listened. In shallow as well as deep water, I gradually succumbed to the distraction of clownfish dancing in and out of anemones or paused to admire the clouds of damselfishes hovering over purple, emerald, and gold hued corals. Unseen before, now I spotted eels decked out in multiple colors and patterns that peered from their lairs. Delicate cleaner shrimp advertised their services while tiptoeing about the corals. And of course there were octopuses, wedged into their hideouts, barely distinguishable within rock and rubble. They were the reef’s silent sentinels—evaluating, watching, waiting for nightfall.
So much to see! I’d look up and my fishing buddies would be far ahead, wondering where I was. “Come look at this,” I’d shout to deaf ears. Though I still shot many fish, often regrettably so given their beauty, I didn’t count on one thing. By the end of two years, many of them, especially the octopuses, had become “friends” for life.
It may seem hard to believe, but octopuses are mollusks, distantly related to clams, oysters and snails. Over 500 million years ago, an evolutionary road diverged; clams went one way and pretty much kept up their clammy ways. The precursor of today’s octopuses later traded the security of a shell, opting for speed, mobility, sharp vision, and star wattage as an aquarium draw. Octopuses are kin to squids, cuttlefishes and the rarely seen nautilus, all of which comprise the Cephalopoda, meaning head foot.
Octopuses break all the rules. They walk on legs lined with individually controllable suction cups. Or jet about by drawing water into their mantle cavity, then forcefully expelling it through a funnel. The suckers are lined with chemoreceptors that can taste food. Octopuses solve problems, use tools, learn skills, recognize individual humans. Their hearts are not one, not two, but three. If frightened, they jet away behind the cover of an ejected cloud of black ink.
Found in all oceans, there are several hundred species of octopuses. The Pygmy is thimble-sized, weighing in at one gram. The Giant Pacific octopus is a scale-busting three to four hundred pounds. Others include the Bumblebee, Flapjack, Gloomy, Old woman and Wunderpus octopuses, as well as the darling of snorkelers just about everywhere, Octopus vulgaris, the Common octopus.
All of them have a level of intelligence unheard of in the realm of invertebrates. One learned to quickly solve a maze by watching a trained octopus navigate the puzzle first. Veined octopuses collect coconut shell halves to use as shelter. When threatened, they tuck into one half and may even pull the other on top and wait for the danger to pass. They have been seen transporting the shells from one place to another to use as “mobile homes,” behavior thought to be the only known use of a tool by an invertebrate. But one thing octopuses don’t do very well is to live long lives. Programmed to grow fast, breed once, and die young, a three-year-old is considered ancient.
Maka-feke (MACH-ah FEH-kay) in Tongan literally means “octopus rock” and is what fishermen use to lure the creature from its lair. Here is where the legend I first heard at the kava club merged with the practical. I’ve often wondered which came first, legend or lure. Or maybe a keen observer did spot a rat hitch-hiking atop a cephalopod. Perhaps a cyclone forced the two into an uneasy alliance, later violated by the rat. Myth? Maybe, but then again…
What does force the imagination is finding the rat-like resemblance in a contraption that appears more an homage to mixed media than fishing lure. The lure is made by joining a conical stone to a shell and a fibrous “tail.” A line is attached and the decoy bobbed over the octopus’s lair. Spotting its old nemesis the rat, the octopus rushes forth and seizes the lure, only to be drawn to the surface where it is dispatched with a bite through the brain. Though I had no qualms other than an initial queasiness about biting a speared fish to death, I drew the line when it came to doing the same thing to an octopus.
Before it can be converted from surgical tubing consistency to edible morsels, an octopus must be tenderized. Boiling and whacking the heck out of them are classic techniques. Where refrigeration is not an option, Tongans drape them in tree branches, the desiccated bodies, feke momoa, fodder for nightmares. My personal favorite was lu feke, chunks of octopus tucked into layers of young taro leaves with bits of onion and baked in coconut milk. Nau, the wife of my headmaster, served it after Sunday church—a special treat—and I wolfed it down. The richly flavored stew could make anyone forget that they were eating the world’s most intelligent invertebrate.
During the day, an octopus holes up in a den; a small cave or crevice, even a beer bottle will do. Nighttime is when they go on the hunt. Armed and dangerous like its cousin the squid, an octopus is an efficient, voracious predator. It stalks crabs, probes for clams, explores crevices for shrimp. The suckers on each arm function independently and can manipulate objects with ease, even to the point of rolling a tasty tidbit sucker-to-sucker on down to the mouth where prey is dispatched with a lethal bite. Often, the hunter retreats to the safety of its den to eat. Meal over, the octopus doesn’t want to crowd up its living room, and like sloppy college students tossing pizza boxes outside a dorm room, an octopus discards shells outside its den. Want to find an octopus? Look for its garbage heap.
If you’re lucky enough to spot an octopus caught out in the open, don’t look away. One moment it’s there, the next it’s not. A master of camouflage, an octopus has many tricks up all those sleeves to avoid detection. Its skin harbors an array of minute color organs called chromatophores, and like tiny cartridges of printer ink, each is hard-wired to the brain. In less than one-hundredth of a second, an octopus can change color in any part of its body, an app that a fashion designer could only dream about. Like to see this outfit in lavender stripes or turquoise polka dots? How about alternating waves of psychedelic maroon and cream? Need to look bigger than you are? Just add dark “makeup” around the eye. Voila, you’ve got a really big eye! How about some textural variety—bumps, lumps, horns—done! Their disguises are many and include the moving rock, waving seaweed, sedentary sponge, and brain coral. Even the flattened flounder is a common pretense.
At Ha’atafu, given the chance to catch an octopus, something niggled at my conscience. My fishing pal Mafi pointed one out. Puke ia! he shouted. Grab it! He looked bemused when I shook my head no. Dragging an octopus from its den and up to the surface was not going to happen. Not given what I’d seen there and on other reefs around the island.
“Meeting an octopus,” wrote professor Peter Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent being.” And my meetings had been frequent and instructive.
An interspecies meet-up with an octopus, without fear or menace, feels like a dry run for the day when we might encounter intelligence from afar, so palpable the baffling enigma of one another. In Tonga, my lifelong love affair with octopuses began with a conversation, since duplicated on many reefs in different seas.
“What are you?” the octopus asks.
“What are you?” my reply.
So goes our underwater chat.
“So now what?”
“So now what?”
Years later, I live on the island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, privileged to visit my reef friends at any time. One of my favorite snorkeling spots is Maho Bay, where emerald hillsides melt into the turquoise waters. One day, I find myself nosing about the submerged boulders and corals at the base of a rocky point that juts into the bay. It’s a good place to search for dazzling juvenile fishes such as Rock Beauties, French and Queen angelfishes, Blue Tangs. Sometimes I even see baby lobster, juvenile sea turtles and yes, octopuses.
Engage the coral reef for long enough and you soon become attuned to the unusual shape, movement or color that shouts “look here!” So I do.
A translucent bubble, no larger than the tip of my little finger, drifts past. And then another and still another. Suddenly I’m nested within hundreds of bubbles. A tiny form reveals itself within each; a baby octopus, a perfect miniature version of the adult. Each egg is occupied by a tiny ambassador from another world. I have never seen this before. The female octopus normally lays and stands guard over her eggs in a den until they’ve hatched. And then she dies. The sight of new life is a rarity on the coral reef. But things always happen. No two visits are ever the same.
Unmoored before their time, the babies stand little chance where hungry mouths abound. Reef fish swirl close and begin to feed on this unexpected food source. Gently, I cup one of the eggs, take a breath and dive. The sun’s rays twist in the water column and illuminate my path down. Rainbow-colored parrotfish move off, a school of French grunts divides. I find a small opening in the rocks, pray that a moray eel hasn’t chosen the same spot and shove my fist within. I release the egg, give a few waves of my hand to push it back farther. And hope.