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ATTACK OF THE HEAD HUGGERS

By Nigel Marsh

 

I have been fascinated by blue-ringed octopus since I first encountered one as a young teenager. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, I, like all kids, had been told to never touch any small octopus with blue-rings when at the beach. But snorkelling one day in a bay south of Sydney I was in for a big surprise.

 

I was looking for crayfish and abalone, and diving to the bottom I picked up an empty abalone shell. Back on the surface I turned it over to get a better look, when suddenly something shot out of the shell - something tiny with bright blue-rings!

 

Startled, I dropped the shell and backed away, thinking I was about to be attacked by this deadly creature. But the tiny blue-ringed octopus followed me. In a panic, I backed away more, but the octopus continued to swim towards me. Thinking my life was in peril, I decided to put some distance been me and this tiny octopus, so kicked madly with my fins until I got back to shore. Back on land, my heart was pounding; I had survived my first encounter with a deadly blue-ringed octopus.

 

Years later, after doing my dive course and encountering a number of blue-ringed octopus, I realised what I naïve fool I had been at that first encounter. The little octopus was not trying to attack me, but having disturbed it from its home, the poor thing was venerable and seeking shelter, and I was the closest shelter available.

 

Beautiful but deadly is the best way to describe the blue-ringed octopus family. Only found in the seas of the Indo-West Pacific region, four species of blue-ringed octopus have been described, but several more are known and are awaiting classification. These tiny octopus, most are less than 10cm long, feed on crabs and shrimps, stunning their prey with deadly venom delivery by a deadly bite. This venom is also toxic to humans, and at least three people have died from the bite of a blue-ringed octopus.

 

But the good news for divers, that come in contact with these tiny creatures occasionally at dives sites in Australia and Southeast Asia, is that blue-ringed octopus are shy, non-aggressive and easily avoided. In fact, most don’t flash those vivid blue-rings unless you annoy them, which is a warning that they are venomous, so back-off!

 

Over the years I have encountered a few blue-ringed octopus and never had a problem with them, and have found that even when annoyed they would rather flee. I also found that these little creatures are great photographic subjects, if you can find them. Recently I have been working on a book on muck diving, and not happy with the blue-ringed octopus images I had on file, I set myself a goal to get fresh images of these fascinating creatures, and maybe capture a little behaviour, like them feeding or hunting.

 

First stop was Sydney and Port Stephens to photograph the endemic New South Wales species, the blue-lined octopus (Hapalochlaena fasciata). While all blue-ringed octopus are nocturnal, this species is often found during the day. Over a dozen dives I encountered three of these small octopus strolling across the bottom. I got some nice new images, but didn’t capture any behaviour.

 

I next heading to Melbourne, and on a night dive at Blairgowrie Pier encounter one southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa). This endemic temperate species is found off Australia’s southern states, and while I got some wonderful portraits, no interesting behaviour.

 

Finally, I headed to Lembeh, Indonesia, hoping to photograph the most common tropical species, the greater blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata). This species is no bigger than any other member of the family, but obtained its name from its larger blue-rings. Booking a week at the newly opened Cocotinos Lembeh Resort was very fortuitous, not only was it a great place to stay, but their dive guide Iwan Muhani, turned out to be an excellent critter spotter. Iwan is one of the most experienced dive guides at Lembeh, taught to dive by the legendary Larry Smith in 1995, when the area first opened up to divers. If Iwan can’t find it during your stay, no one can.

 

I gave Iwan a list of critters that I wanted to photograph during the week, and top of the list was the greater blue-ringed octopus. Iwan was confident that he could find one, but he did add that they were everywhere a few months ago, but he hadn’t seen one in weeks. This seasonal shortage had plagued me at other sites in Southeast Asia, where I have found the greater blue-ringed octopus to be very elusive.

 

After three days and no blue-ringed octopus, I was starting to think that this species is not as common as other divers had told me. Iwan then suggest we dive Critter Hunt, with the rubble bottom at this site a perfect habitat for blue-ringed octopus. Critter Hunt is the kind of muck site were you need a very good guide, as all the best critters are hidden amongst the rubble. Iwan quickly located a tiger shrimp, a hairy shrimp and a wonderpus. But then he hit the jackpot, a lovely little greater blue-ringed octopus.

 

I shot image after image of this pretty little octopus, which was barely 5cm long, as it slowly creeped across the bottom. After a few minutes I was happy to let it disappear under a rock as I didn’t want to see it eaten by a hungry fish. Looking up, Iwan was waving me over. He had found another greater blue-ringed octopus. This one was a little angry at being disturbed, flashing its bright blue rings. I got busy photographing it when Iwan suddenly appeared with another greater blue-ringed octopus sitting on his scuba pointer. He then indicated for me to watch.

 

He then gently placed the second octopus next to the first. Almost instantly, the first octopus leaped off the bottom and attacked the intruder, wrapping its arms around its head.

 

I was stunned. Was this a territorial fight, or a battle between rival males? I had seen fights between male cuttlefish and squid, but never octopus. This was very strange behaviour I hadn’t heard about in blue-ringed octopus. I started to photograph the pair, and suddenly realised it was a very subdued fight. The larger octopus, on the bottom, didn’t seem to be too concerned about having the small one wrapped around its head, and was slowly walking across the bottom. I was completely puzzled by the behaviour, but was keen to document it, so continued to shoot images.

 

After a few minutes the pair of head hugging octopus disappeared under a lump of coral. Iwan was going to get them out in the open again, but I indicated to leave them alone, I had got the images and I didn’t want to disturb them any longer.

 

Upon surfacing I thanked Iwan for finding the octopus, and commented on the strange head-hugging fight. Iwan laughed and said that they weren’t fighting, they were mating. Suddenly the behaviour made perfect sense. I had been a naïve fool once more.

 

When octopus mate the male deposits a package of sperm into the female’s oviduct, using a modified tentacle. I have witnessed reef octopus mating many times, with the male slowly sending out his arm to inseminate the female. And with very long arms, the mating couple could be several feet apart. However, blue-ringed octopus have very shot arms, so the male has to hang onto the female to ensure the successful delivering of his sperm.

 

I didn’t see any more greater blue-ringed octopus during the rest of my time at Lembeh, but only a month later I was in South Australia diving another great muck site called Edithburgh Jetty. I was here to get more endemic species for the muck book, as this site has a great collection of cephalopods that emerge at night. I quickly found the two species I was after, the strange southern sand octopus and the exquisite striped pyjama squid, but I was very surprised by the number of southern blue-ringed octopus, they were everywhere.

 

Halfway through the dive my torch highlighted another southern blue-ringed octopus in the distance. I was just about to ignore it to look for rarer species, when I realised it had a lump on its head. Moving in closer I was amazed to see it was a mating pair, in exactly the same position as the tropical species. For several minutes I photographed the pair as the female strolled across the bottom with the male embracing her head. They soon disappeared under a fallen pylon, but I felt very privileged to have witnessed this rare event for a second time.

 

Later, reading up on the mating habits of blue-ringed octopus, I was still thrilled by the encounters, but also felt a little sad, as this event signals the end of an octopus life. Like all cephalopods, blue-ringed octopus only live for one year, and after mating, the female lays her eggs, guards them until they hatch, then she dies.

 

I am sure I will encounter many more blue-ringed octopus over the coming years, and only hope that I once more get to witness the strange head-hugging mating dance of these fascinating creatures.

 

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