It has been some time since I met him. Why do I say «him», you may ask. Because it was the first one and because it was love at first sight!
One day, like so many others, I plunged into the deep blue and let myself be carried away by the same slogan as always: Here I am, surprise me!
And it happened that my attention was caught by a kind of garden with many shells of different shapes and colors, pebbles of all sizes, strategically piled together and piled on top of something. I was not the only one confused or surprised, all the fish that came and went were too. I felt watched, but at the same time I was attracted to the unknown. A long while had passed when I realized that a gaze was penetrating me. Then, suddenly, that crazy ball of junk shook itself and as if in a magic show appeared in all its splendor and doing its great act of escapism. It took courage, and like a flash of lightning it swam away at full speed. I was perplexed, I had just met «Mr. Octopus», he and his act had made me fall in love with him! As soon as I entered its world, I realized that this animal was different, that I really wanted to meet it and learn about its life in the deep blue. They were brief and intense minutes of connecting with more than just an animal, it was the knowledge that I would have a lot of learning ahead of me.
Today I have several «octopuses friends». Yes, just as you hear it, we are friends. And on every dive, I stop by to visit them in their little houses with the beautiful garden in front of them. Gaining their trust is not an easy task. To achieve it, I pass by every day and stay in front of them for a long time so that the distrust dissipates. One of their first steps for this approach is to peek a little, but leaving their suction cups inside the cave, as a sign of protection against a possible unexpected situation. As the days go by, a habit is generated that leads us both to a bond. Today, I extend my hand and they do the same, contacting their tentacles. It is our greeting!!!!! What a pleasant feeling, like greeting a friend and shaking their hand upon seeing them. Both of us breathing underwater and united in a greeting, it is a magical sequence that cannot be explained in words. When you have that connection with an animal there is no better feeling in the world, it really is amazing!
How about knowing more about our friends, the Octopuses, their behavior and curiosities?
Octopuses are highly intelligent animals, capable of solving complex problems, discriminating through classical conditioning, and learning through observation. Despite not being particularly long-lived and having a solitary lifestyle, they are able to learn and show their cognitive capacity by adopting different behaviors depending on the stimulus. It has been shown that learning can be worked with them using positive rewards and negative consequences.
Octopuses apply significantly different pressure when they are about to manipulate different utensils, prey or, on the contrary, act defensively against predators. It has been shown that they hold prey, as is the case with fish, with much greater intensity than when they manipulate the tools they can use for protection and recognize and differentiate their own amputated tentacles from those of other members of the same species. According to one of the studies consulted, 94% of octopuses did not eat their own tentacles, but transported them to their shelter using their beaks.
They are capable of transporting materials to build their own shelters, even if they have difficulty moving and may temporarily jeopardize their survival. In this way, they have the opportunity to subsist longer. They can also mimic species in their environment that are poisonous as a further form of survival. These behaviors are possible because of their long-term memory capacity, learning and their defensive reflex memory. In these behaviors, serotonin, a neurotransmitter substance that influences mood, emotions, and depressive states in a wide range of animals, plays a very important role. It is for this reason that «The Cambridge Statement on Consciousness» includes the octopus as an animal capable of self-awareness.
Next, I will tell you some curiosities and physical characteristics about octopuses:
- Octopuses can walk, swim and cling to any surface thanks to their powerful and strong suction cups. To do so, they need three hearts (or pumping points), one that works exclusively in their heads and two that pump blood to the rest of the body.
- They can modify their physical appearance, as chameleons do, as well as their texture, depending on the environment or predators present.
- They are able to regenerate their tentacles if they are amputated.
- The arms of the octopus are extremely flexible and have infinite movements. To ensure proper control, they move in stereotyped patterns that reduce their freedom and allow for greater body control.
- Their vision is color blind, that is, they have difficulty discriminating red, green, and sometimes blue shades.
- Octopuses have about 500 million neurons, the same number as a dog and six times more than a mouse.
- Each of their tentacles has about 40 million chemical receptors, so each one, individually, is considered to be the large sensory organ.
- Lacking bones, the octopus uses muscles as the main structure of the body, by stiffening and contracting them. This is a motor control strategy.
- There is a relationship between the olfactory receptors of the octopus’s brain and its reproductive system. They can identify chemical elements produced by other octopuses, even through their suckers.
- Octopuses are semelparous animals, that is, they generally reproduce only once and then die. After laying their eggs, the female will not abandon them to take care of them and oxygenate them and will stop eating. On many occasions, this behavior will result in their death.
There are more than 300 species of octopus around the world. Here in Eivissa the most popular is Octopus vulgaris. They can be observed in almost every dive, especially when we know how to identify the obvious signs of their presence: the entrances of their burrows are very characteristic as they accumulate remains of shells and sea stones. As for their conservation, although their populations are not endangered, there are certain restrictions and controls on their capture.
Another well-known species is Octopus macropus. It is on the list of protected species of the Balearic Islands, revised by the Species Protection Service of the Government in 2015. It is a very appreciated species by divers and common during night dives as they come out to hunt at sunset.
Finally, I share with you some thoughts from diver Craig Foster, who starred in the Oscar-winning documentary «The Octopus Teacher».
Craig Foster was diving, bare-chested, in extremely cold waters off the southern tip of Africa when he spotted it: an octopus hiding under a blanket of shells and rocks. Enchanted, he began to follow this incredibly shy creature, trying to prove that he was not a predator by standing very still in her presence. For weeks she evaded him: hiding in her den, camouflaging herself or pushing her liquid body into the nearest crevice to escape. After 26 days of almost obsessive courtship, she reached out and touched him.
«Over the years, other animals have come up to make contact, including otters, whales, squid and even sharks. They have chosen to come to me and make that contact, showing a moment of trust and vulnerability. But nothing has compared to my once-in-a-lifetime bond with the octopus,» Foster says.
«Your own role and place in the natural world are singularly the most precious gift we have been given,» the diver reflects. Foster also says the best lesson is that humans are part of the natural world around us and not simply visitors.
Look at the oceans, fix your gaze on the sea, feel it, breathe it… they provide half the oxygen we breathe… where legends come to life and reality becomes fable. Unknown worlds, unknown stories, only guarded by a furious and defenseless sea.