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The Mystery of the Misunderstood Cephalopod

by Stephanie Lile

Underneath the Narrows Bridge, spanning the gap between Tacoma and Gig Harbor, Washington, lurks the largest octopus in the world.

True or False?

Newspapers from the 1900s through the 1950s are sprinkled with outrageous descriptions of the giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini). From the 1904 Aberdeen Herald's "vampire of the ocean" to the 1905 Colfax Gazette's claim that, "it is frightfully repulsive and only happy when it fights." These accounts come from a time when little was known about the elusive cephalopod and much was fictionalized. Victor Hugo's 1866 novel Toilers of the Sea pits its main character against an octopus while salvaging a shipwreck off the Guernsey shore. This was no doubt the inspiration for the "big thrills" of the 1922/1937 movie Ebb Tide in which the main characters have an underwater battle with an octopus.

As more people made their way to Puget Sound in the late 1890s, accounts of "devil fish" encounters from British Columbia to Sunrise Beach made the news. The 1904 Aberdeen Herald described the unusual encounter by Captain S.F. Scott off the coast of Victoria, B.C. Out for an evening row, his skiff was overturned by "black-fish" (orcas). "Just as I had swum back to the boat and laid my hands on the upturned keel, I felt myself seized round the legs, half-way below the knees—seized with such strength and suddenness and pulled down with such tremendous force that the boat was jerked clean over, and came down on top my head. Like lightening came the truth, I was in the arms of a devil-fish."

Scott's story of struggle goes on, finally ending with release from the octopus and serious injury to his legs and feet. Accounts of encounters continued, with the 1907 Spokane Press reporting what was then believed to be the, "biggest octopus ever pulled out of the Sound near Tacoma." J. O. Ware was fishing near the docks in Commencement Bay and hooked a 30-pound octopus. "The big devil-fish measures 15 feet from the tip of one tentacle to the other. The 'suckers' are as large as a man's fist."

And the cephalopods get bigger.

Octopus and Boys at Sunrise Beach, c. 1915, Harbor History Museum Collection, SBch-28.

The 1922 Seattle Star used this little "fact" as filler: "Devil-fish varies in length from 1 inch to 50 feet." One long-time diver, Walter McCray of Tacoma, Washington, recounted an incident in which he became entangled with an octopus during a maintenance dive and feared that his air tube would become pinched or torn away. McCray was in communication by marine telephone with his crew who ultimately pulled him and the "devil-fish" to the surface. Two sketchy claims surfaced along with them: One that this octopus was the first of its kind to attack a man, and it was the largest ever to be seen in Puget Sound waters.

That November, local Sunrise Beach fisherman 19-year old Albert Garness, came face-to-face with a large octopus in the Narrows. Knowing they sold well as a market delicacy, Garness speared the cephalopod, hoping to make a great haul. The tides turned, however, and he was pulled overboard and drowned by the wounded octopus. News of Garness's fate hit the newspapers, and the stories of giant cephalopods grew ever greater.

They grew so fantastic that Octopus Wrestling emerged as a sport. Fast forward to the 1950s when the Puget Sound Mudsharks started the World Octopus Wrestling Championship. The goal was for teams to use snorkel gear to swim down, locate an octopus, and bring it to the surface where it would be weighed. As you might guess, this was no easy task, but the "sport" caught on. By the Championship in 1963, 100 divers took part and, working in teams, found and brought to the surface 25 octopuses. The largest weighed 57 pounds. The captured octopuses were either eaten, given to aquariums, or returned to the Sound.

By the late 1970s, octopus wrestling as a sport was gone and new understandings of these intelligent creatures began to emerge.

Even as early as 1922, a short piece in the Pullman Herald shares the view of Professor Joubin, director of the French technical bureau of fisheries. "The octopus is not only not dangerous, it is a very timid creature." Perhaps Joubin was an inspiration for the man who forever changed our Baby Boomer view of life under the sea, Jacques Cousteau.

For those of us who waited eagerly for each episode of Cousteau's "Undersea World" (1966-1976) the episode "Octopus, Octopus," shaped the way we viewed this eight-armed cephalopod. From being described in 1910 as having "eyes that shoot fire" and bearing "great ugly warts [that] suddenly appear on its back," to Cousteau's playful bonding and demonstrations of cephalopod intelligence, we've transformed from a generation of "wrestlers" to "watchers" and "keepers." This was true for my sister and I, forever transformed by an encounter with a small octopus in Gig Harbor. We were paddling our canoe in three or four feet of water, and underneath us appeared a beautiful rusty-orange octopus. It swam with us for a few yards before gracefully diving into the deeps.

In most recent times, stories of "the" giant octopus who lives under the Narrows Bridge still surface from time to time. When the first Narrows Bridge, nicknamed "Galloping Gertie" plunged into the Sound on November 7, 1940 just four months after opening, her shattered concrete and twisted steel fell some 200 feet into the glacier-carved depths. Now a protected scuba dive site, the remains have long been rumored to be home to a truly giant Pacific octopus named "King." Yet the truth is, while octopuses might live in debris closest to shore, life in the deeps below the bridge is hardly an octopus garden. Some of the only known footage of the deepest debris field shot just this year, shows a desolate seascape of tide-swept bridge debris. With currents raging daily at speeds of up to 8 miles per hour, few sea creatures aside from intrepid starfish, anemones, and barnacles manage to survive.

But that doesn't mean there aren't many nearby places where these amazing cephalopods continue to live and roam. Despite its short 4-5 year lifespan, the giant Pacific octopus has become not only legendary, but a true icon of Puget Sound.

Want to see a cephalopod up close and personal, without getting wet? Check out this cool video for World Octopus Day 2019 from the Seattle Aquarium. Look for the fact about the biggest octopus documented....You'll be amazed!


Special Note: Cephalopod lovers, there's still time to get your Hometown Love "Home on the Bay" T-shirt. Click here to order yours today.



Octopus with Bridge Steel at the Harbor History Museum, 2018. Christine Buchanan. Photographed by Stephanie Lile. Harbor History Museum Collection.

Aberdeen Herald, February 29, 1904. "Battling with an Octopus."

Seattle Star, March 20, 1922. "Devil-fish."

Spokane Press, November 12, 1910. "Natural History Stories Told for our Girls and Boys: The Octopus."

Colfax Gazette, October 6, 1905. "The Ugly Octopus."

"1963 World Octopus Wrestling" Newspaper clipping from "Devil Fish and Octopus Wrestling" blogpost. The Secretary of State's Office, September 26, 2013.

"Giant Octopus Attacks Narrows Bridge," October 13, 2016. PLove17. YouTube.

"World Octopus Day, 2019," Seattle Aquarium. Youtube.

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