Walk the peninsula’s beaches this time of year and you won’t find much of a high tide line. Gone are the mounds of seaweed, the stranded jellyfish. Gone is the brownish scum of planktonic life. The bay is as clear as well water.
Nonetheless, on a sharp cool morning, my cousin tells me she has found an octopus. My eyes get big. She says it’s been left by the tide on a beach we often walk.
I cannot resist. I go to inspect it. And it is not hard to find. Sagging on the rocks is a rotting pouch of pinkish flesh as big as a saddlebag. Its tentacles are gone. The stumps are massive, each as big as my fist and warted with a few protruding suckers.
The bulk of the half-decayed specimen is the rounded front of the octopus — the mantle. Its eyes are missing. I find a stick. Holding my breath, I reposition the mass until I see the octopus’s sharp black beak hiding in a ring of white muscle. I then find the siphon, now limp, that once jet-propelled the octopus around its haunts.
I rock back on my heels and gaze over Carr Inlet. It’s incredible. Here is the fabled, lionized, never-seen-by-ordinary-eyes Giant Pacific Octopus, right at my feet. I have lived here nearly my entire life and never have I seen one outside an aquarium.
And I’m not the only one looking. A yellow jacket picks at it too.
One of the sad realities of life as a naturalist is that your best chance to study an animal often comes when it has died. The worlds in which animals live and move can be so different from our own — and our perception can be so limited — that just to cross their paths can be darn near impossible. I think of the peninsula’s shrews, its saw-whet owls. Death has made visible what is normally beyond me. It has carried this octopus across a threshold between worlds.
Now, I’ll admit to enjoying the process of dissection — much can be learned from scars and stomach contents — but what I’d like even more, in this moment, is to see this octopus in action, to watch it interact with its living world, to get a sense of its relationships. Naturalists love to think about relationships.
Hang on, I ask. Why is this octopus here?
The Giant Pacific Octopus, known affectionately to marine biologists as the GPO, lives around rocky reefs with plenty of hiding places; hence our local legend of a granddaddy octopus inhabiting the sunken wreckage of Galloping Gertie. Carr Inlet is sandy-bottomed from tip to tail. GPOs might be among the smartest invertebrates alive, shape-shifting masters of their environment able to fit through a three-inch hole, but they have a strong fear of open water. None would willingly enter Carr Inlet.
By size alone there is no doubt this is a GPO. The only other octopus in Puget Sound, the East Pacific Red Octopus, which can be seen at low tide at Penrose Point, never gets bigger than your hand.
GPOs seldom live more than five years in the wild. When it is time to reproduce, the male uses a special tentacle, the hectocotylus, to deliver a yard-long packet of sperm to the female. The female keeps the packet until she has made a burrow in which to lay her eggs, thousands of them. She guards and cleans the eggs until they hatch, and then she dies.
By that point, the male is long since gone. After delivering his package, he enters a phase of life called senescence. It is a slow death. His body begins to disintegrate. He loses his fears of light and open water and leaves the reefs. Other creatures begin to eat him. His body unfolds on the currents until it ends up in a place like this.
I take a moment to ponder the journey this octopus took to arrive here, the worlds it has crossed.
Like this yellow jacket — talk about crossing worlds. When was the last time a wasp in these parts ate octopus? Again, my mind fills with questions. Like, how can this wasp encounter such a completely strange type of flesh and know it’s safe to eat? I don’t sample strange mushrooms.
I watch as it works on its rare treat. This particular species, Vespula germanica, is a recent introduction into America and has already made itself at home in most of our local environments.
There is something special about such a generalist. Researchers who study the learning powers of yellow jackets are finding a surprising cognitive flexibility. They not only create efficient maps of their environments but respond quickly to changing conditions. They can integrate experiences over time. This wasp will not be confused when the next tide carries this carcass away. It will move on.
On into another environment, another encounter, another brief relationship. Out here on the high tide line, worlds are continually overlapping. Wasps eat octopus, and for the observant naturalist, questions follow questions. There is always more to see.
Chris Rurik is a writer, naturalist and historian who lives in Lakebay.
The Skinny on Giant Pacific Octopus
Giant Pacific octopus:
Life span averages three to six years.
Naturally reddish brown skin with bulbous eyes. Weights average about 90 pounds with an arm span reaching as much as 20 feet. The largest giant octopus on record weighed 600 pounds.
They live solitary lives in rocky habitat and intertidal zones, and down to depths of over 6,000 feet. A 50-pound octopus can squeeze through a 2-inch space, hiding from predators by occupying nooks and crannies.
Carnivores, giant octopus prefer shellfish, including crabs, clams, abalone, shrimp and certain fish.
Masters of disguise, these octopuses instantly change the color and texture of their appearance to mimic their surroundings. The only hard part of their body is their venomous parrot-like beak, through which they eat and squirt ink into the water that blinds other sea creatures.