Jacques Cousteau was famous for many things, not the least of which were his opinions on the world's most spectacular dive sites. When he explored God's Pocket Marine Provincial Park at the northern tip of Vancouver Island, he rated it as one of his all-time favorites. It would have ranked even higher, he said, had it not been as cold. Knowing that, I was beyond excited when Bill and Annie Weeks, two wonderful friends and owners of God's Pocket for over twenty years, invited Cristina and me up to explore the riches of British Columbia's coastline.
The area is known as "God's Pocket" because it is about as close as you can get to a cold-temperature ocean heaven. The currents here are some of the fastest on the planet, carrying nutrient-rich water back and forth with the tides like some invisible factory conveyor belt. Thanks to the resulting bounty, local marine life grows to be big and beautiful. God's Pocket also happens to be a hot spot for giant Pacific octopuses, the world's largest octopus species, which can grow up to twenty-five feet in length from tip to tip. They are truly remarkable animals, well-deserving of the reverence and curiosity we have for them.
Cristina and I stumbled across one particularly large individual as we cruised over the reef about sixty-five feet below the surface during a morning dive. It was doing what these intelligent beings do best: altering the thousands of color-changing cells just below the surface of its skin to camouflage itself against the anemone-covered ocean floor. Not wanting to pass up a rare opportunity, I dialed in my strobe and camera settings then slowly approached, carefully framing up my shot. It seemed to grow more and more excited the closer I got, whether because of my lights or my shiny, silver camera housing, I don't know, but only when it began to fluctuate between brilliant colors did I realize its true size. I had closed to within two feet when the biggest octopus I had ever seen flared its body, reached out with its tentacles, and lunged towards me.
There was no way I would have had the strength to defend myself had it decided to wrap around my face or tug the life-sustaining regulator from my mouth, so I was thankful when its long tentacles spiraled around my housing instead, plucking it from my hands as effortlessly as it might have stolen candy from a baby. It immediately began trucking away from me, three legs clutching its prize tightly beneath its mantle while the remaining five pedaled deftly over the reef towards a ledge that descended hundreds of feet into dark, high-current water.
I nervously glanced at my dwindling air supply – I was now a hundred feet deep, and the octopus showed no signs of slowing down. I needed to act quickly. Despite the guilt I felt for asking it to part with its shiny new toy, I grabbed and pulled at a protruding handle. It turned to look at me, flashing a series of angry red colors as though I was the bad guy, and we began a bizarre, underwater tug of war – man vs. cephalopod. It was ridiculous, of course, and made more difficult by the water flooding my mask every time I laughed, but my air was down to 600 PSI, and I needed a solution.
Technology was on my side. I slid a second, safety regulator (referred to by divers as the "octopus," ironically) under its mantle right where the housing was and released a few little pulses of air. Octopuses don't like the feeling of air bubbles against their skin, and though I was careful to be very gentle, they had the desired effect. It loosened its grip on the housing, perhaps deciding this particular treasure wasn't worth the hassle, and I was able to extract it from between swirling tentacles.
The octopus continued flashing as it scuttled over the edge of the dropoff and down into the darkness, no doubt considering me contemptible for my selfishness. Almost completely out of air, I returned to where Cristina was waiting, and we surfaced together with an incredible story but no pictures to prove it. I guess you will just have to take my word on this one.