I love octopus.
Their biology is fascinating, but it’s the look of them that really captivates me.
From a lifetime of living on land, I’ve come to associate large, intelligent animals with vertebrates. But if you look into the eyes of an octopus you can feel an intelligence looking back at you. And it’s not an intelligence with fur or feathers, it’s alien, it’s tentacles and suckers.
I’ve been obsessed with animals ever since I could be. I’ve spent plenty of time in aquariums, and I’ve seen octopus. But until a couple of years ago I’d never seen one in the wild.
But then on a holiday in Mallorca a couple of years ago it happened, twice. The second sighting was the most memorable, but the first served as a good teaser.
I was sitting on the edge of the hotel terrace watching the sun set with my partner, Aleks. We noticed there were crabs on the rocks in front of us. Quick, stop-start movements drew your eye. The more you looked, the more crabs you saw. The rocks were crawling with them.
Aleks saw it first and pointed.
A single, long, thin tentacle had emerged from the water and was probing the surface of one of the rocks. More tentacles followed, and a small octopus dragged itself out of the sea and onto the rock.
Its body was slightly larger than a tennis ball, its arms probably around a foot long. It was a dark red colour and looked gelatinous. It hauled itself over the rocks and disappeared into a crack. Octopus feed on crabs, so I assume it came out of the water to hunt.
It was a brief encounter, but one of those times you don’t realise you’re holding your breath until it’s over.
I was excited to have seen my first octopus in the wild.
A couple of days later I had a better encounter though.
I spent a lot of that holiday snorkeling. Our hotel was in a cove with a reef, you only had to swim out a few meters and you were surrounded by hundreds of brightly coloured fish.
Past the reef you found yourself in deeper water, amongst shoals of larger fish. One afternoon I was floating there, when the seafloor started to move beneath me.
For a few seconds it looked like the sand and rocks had come to life, but then it clicked into place and I saw the shape. There was a camouflaged octopus a couple of meters below me.
It was big, probably more than a meter long. It changed colour, it lost it’s camouflage and became redder. It was spooky, as if the octopus knew I’d seen it and understood there was no point trying to hide.
It rolled its head to one side and fixed me with an eye. It watched me and I watched it. I thought about diving down to get a closer look, but I didn’t want to bother it, and I was a little bit scared. Did I mention it was big?
We watched each other until it swam away. I tried to follow, but it moved too quickly.
I came back to that same area the following days, but I didn’t see it again.