Here Be Sea Monsters…in Seattle…Sorta

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by Brian Bergen-Aurand

“Giant Pacific octopuses live all over Puget Sound.”

I have to admit, this line from Cathy Duchamp’s 19 April 2016 KUOW story “Is there really a giant octopus under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?” made me think twice about swimming in the waters around Seattle. (Of course, recent weather has rendered that concern moot for now because the daily water temperature at Alki Beach is near 50F and falling. With November turning into December and January, and the temperature due to drop toward 45F, I do not think I will be immersing myself any time soon.)

As I listened to this archived podcast and thought about the recent stories I have heard about what lies just off the shore in and around Elliot Bay, I realized, oddly enough, the thought of swimming with orcas or among the eleven species of shark that inhabit the Puget Sound has never bothered me.

Something there is about a giant octopus, though. And something there is, indeed, about the Giant Pacific Octopuses that thrive—in fact and fiction—all around Seattle.

There are several versions of the tale of the extraordinarily large Giant Pacific Octopuses roaming the waters off Tacoma and Seattle. One version, the one discussed in Duchamp’s story, recounts the sightings of the eight-armed monster that haunts the waters around the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Reportedly, it is especially drawn to young lovers strolling along the waterfront. Another version was told to me most recently by a vendor at Pike Place Market, who said the “really big one is supposed to live right under the pier near the Seattle Aquarium.” No one is certain if this leviathan remains in close proximity in support of its confined cousins or in the hopes of a free meal should a fish break free or a visitor tumble over a railing. Finally, there is the version involving the Northwest Tree Octopuses, who supposedly climb out of the water and onto the extremely damp western shores of Puget Sound to feast on insects and frogs caught unawares. According to legend, these amphibious octos are especially adept at camouflage and, thus, dastardly difficult to spot.

As fun as these stories are—and who am I to doubt their veracity—there are some facts from National Geographic about Giant Pacific Octopuses (GPOs) that are fascinating in and of themselves.

  • The GPO (Enteroctopus dofleini) is the world’s largest invertebrate and swims throughout the Puget Sound waters. It lives longer than any other cephalopod—three to five years—and dies after breeding once.
  • The biggest known GPO weighed 600 pounds and had an arm span of over 30 feet. On average, GPOs weigh 20-110 pounds and measure between nine and just over fifteen feet.
  • GPOs are carnivores and have eight arms with about 1500 suckers overall. GPOs use their suckers to feel and taste. (Yes. When an octopus is touching you, it is actually tasting you.) They have large brains and are highly intelligent. They also have beaks that allow them to bite their prey. Their beaks are their only hard tissues—they have no bones—so GPOs can fit through openings the size of a lemon.
  • GPOs crawl or propel themselves quickly for short distances by squirting jets of water from the siphons in their heads. When threatened, they can release an ink cloud to cover their escape. Like other cephalopods, GPOs can change their skin color to hide or, perhaps, say some scientists, to reflect their moods.

If you want to see a Giant Pacific Octopus for yourself but do not fancy swimming with these “sea monsters” of the Puget Sound, you can visit them at the Seattle Aquarium Giant Pacific Octopus tank or watch them on the GPO Cam between 9 A.M. and 6 P.M. PST daily. Feeding times are 12 P.M. and 4 P.M. PST.

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[This article originally appeared in Parachute on 30 November 2016.]

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