Giant Pacific Octopus

Found on the Pacific Northwest coast, the elusive and highly intelligent Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest of its species.

Despite being the subject of some colorful folklore (see images below), these graceful sea-dwellers are in fact, quite a peaceful lot.

This page provides some detail on the species which lives (among other places) in the cool coastal waters around Salt Spring Island, BC.

 

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The Octopus Attacking the Nautilus, Illustration from "20,000 Leagues under the Sea" Giant Octopus Attacking a Sailing-Ship Huge Octopus Nearly Succeeds in Overcoming American Diver Martin Lund But is Eventually Beaten Off

Although researchers have studied both wild and captive octopuses, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding the species. They are solitary creatures, and have been witnessed behaving in ways that show a crafty nature.

TRICKY TRICKS

In one documentary, an octopus, spooked by the divers/film crew, propped up a seastar behind it after slipping through an opening in the rocks. Most ocean critters fear the seastar, so it was a clever move by the octopus!

They’ve been dubbed the ‘primates of the sea’ because of their ability to learn by watching, which is considered an advanced form of intelligence.

And they’re very able escape artists. Because they have no internal skeleton, octopuses have an amazing ability to squeeze through any opening larger than their beak, which is the only hard part of their bodies. (The beak is located on the underside, in the center of the octopus, where all the arms meet.)

Personalities seem to differ amongst Octopuses. Some are curious and even playful. Others are shy and evasive. Still others are aggressive and territorial. Of course, they’re behavior can vary depending on the circumstances. For example, a female octopus protecting a clutch of eggs can be very unfriendly, even downright combative.

Life Cycle

The Giant Pacific Octopus is not currently a protected species. Their life span is short; only 3-5 years for those living in the wild.

Reproduction brings on the beginning of the end for an octopus. Males only live a few months after mating. Females (usually) live just long enough to see their eggs hatch. They begin to deteriorate as soon as the eggs are laid.

Offspring

Females lay up to 100,000 eggs at a time. The eggs are tiny white balls which are strung up to the underside of the mother’s den to hang down and move with the flow of the water. It can take up to three weeks for the female to fertilize all of her eggs.

The mother stays with the eggs the entire 5-7 months it takes them to hatch out. She devotes the last of her energy to keep the oxygenated sea water flowing through her clutch of eggs and constantly grooming the eggs to prevent bacteria and algae from growing on them. This is essential for their survival.

Hatchlings start off about the size of a grain of rice. Once hatched, they make the perilous journey up toward the surface of the water. These tiny hatchlings are considered a scrumptious snack by jellyfish and plankton feeders.

Few (an estimated 1%) of those hatchlings survive to adulthood. From juvenile to adult, the Giant Pacific Octopus is preyed upon by marine animals such as the harbour seal, sperm whale, dogfish shark, ling cod and the sea otter.

In this video, a diver befriends a Giant Pacific Octopus, returning repeatedly to record the significant moments in it’s life cycle. It’s beautifully done and very informative (though a little sad, but that’s nature right?)…

Fascinating Physiology

In adulthood, Giant Pacific Octopuses weigh around 110lbs (50kg) and have an arm span up to 16ft (5m) across. According to records, the largest ever sighted was 600lbs with an arm span of 30ft!

It’s unlikely that divers will encounter an octopus anywhere near that size though. Most sightings are of individuals from a few inches to a few feet in length.

In the ’90s, there was (reportedly) a huge Giant Pacific Octopus living in a den under Galiano Island. Film crews were called in to get some footage of the rare sight, but the Octopus wasn’t fond of all the attention and quickly vacated.

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Giant Pacific Octopus, Pacific Northwest, USA
Giant Pacific Octopus, Largest Species, Canada
Giant Pacific Octopus, British Columbia

Octopuses have 3 hearts because their blood (which, interestingly, is blue) is inefficient at providing oxygen. They’ve evolved three separate hearts to spread out the blood-pumping workload.

The suckers on an octopuses arm serve a few important functions. Gripping prey, obviously, but they’re also neurologically sensitive, allowing the octopus to taste what it feels with it’s suckers.

Habitat

The Giant Pacific Octopus lives in intertidal areas and to depths of around 200 ft. They create dens, usually in a crevice between large underwater boulders.

Watch for debris (clam and scallop shells, pieces of crabs, etc) which may be signs of Octopuses feeding. It may also indicate the presence of a den nearby. They feed mostly at night and usually remain in their dens during the day.

Encounters

If you encounter an octopus in it’s den, avoid putting your hand in or your face up too close for a peek.

They’ll sometimes creep out an arm to have a ‘taste’ of their visitors, which can occasionally escalate to the octopus trying to pull divers into their dens, or remove breathing apparatus. Not a situation any diver wants to be in.

Defenses

Octopuses change color to blend in with their surroundings which helps them to hide from predators, or sneak up on prey. Each of their pigment cells has bags filled with different colors, which they can summon up when necessary.

For a quick escape, they fill their mantle (the large oval ‘head’ of the octopus) with water, take aim and expel a jet of water to propel themselves forward.

One of their most impressive tricks though, is to spray out a cloud of ‘ink’ and vanish. There is also evidence that they prey on sharks and birds. Although in the case of sharks, it may be more of a defense than an offense on the part of the Octopus.

This footage, by National Geographic, shows exactly how a Giant Pacific Octopus defends itself against preying sharks…

Seems a species that’s been around for over 450 million years learns a few tricks to adapt and survive. These compelling creatures are definitely not to be messed with. But despite their potential for aggression, they have a rugged, unorthodox sort of beauty about them.

As humans have come to understand more about these mystical ‘beasts’ our fear of them has lessened and curiosity has grown. Because of their solitary nature, though, they are difficult subjects to study. We hope this page has given you a fuller understanding of the Giant Pacific Octopus.

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