Surviving Giant North Pacific Octopus Encounters

Author Tom Hemphill has seen a number of incredible creatures in his time as an underwater diver, from crabs and eels to large octopuses. Read on to learn more about his adventures with octopuses in the North Pacific, and how he’s made friends deep below the ocean’s surface!


Surviving Giant North Pacific Octopus Encounters
By Tom Hemphill
 
A diver with an octopus.
A diver with an octopus.

Circa 1967, shortly after joining a small dive club in Camas, Washington, I began hearing stories of how to catch giant North Pacific octopus. I was excited to see an octopus, but I was a bit scared as well.  I didn’t really know what to expect, and I had visions of this huge aggressive creature with eight long tentacles, wrapping me up and squeezing me to death.
 
Finally, after a few dives in Puget Sound I saw my first live octopus underwater. He/she was inside of a 3-foot long, 8-inch pipe that I didn’t know how to get them out of, and perhaps I wasn’t sure if I wanted them out. I hauled the pipe, octopus and all, up the slope and to the beach. Once out of the water, the octopus exited the pipe and I had my first catch. For the record, octopus are legal to catch and good to eat. However, a few years later, after an extremely close encounter with a very large male octopus, I made the decision to never again remove one from their natural habitat. I’ll save that story for last.

The author in 1967.
The author in 1967.

I’ve never thought of a clam being very smart, but octopuses are related to clams and octopuses are very smart. In captivity, each octopus has their own personality, and they can even identify certain people, especially the ones that feed them. When my good friend Tom Henderson was 16 years old, he captured a small octopus and brought it home to keep in his 200-gallon aquarium.  Tom would go diving every weekend and bring home a few buckets of live crab to feed his pet. One day, I was visiting Tom and he told me to open the door of his room and stand there to see how his pet would respond. I opened the door and the octopus began to come out from behind a rock, but when he spotted me, he slid back behind the rock to hide. Then Tom walked into the room and the octopus shot to the glass to greet him, and to get fed.
 
Another time, I was diving with a group in Hawaii, and a lady diver speared a small octopus with a small pole spear. The octopus began moving up the spear and reached out for her arm. She panicked and dropped the spear. I was close, so I grabbed the spear, gripped the octopus, and slid it off the spear before putting inside of a bag. It was a small species, perhaps only eight or 10 pounds. It wrapped its tentacles around my bare arm and I ended up with several rows of hickies that would have been cool to show at the bar later to enhance my sea stories. Unfortunately, they went away before I could begin my story-telling that afternoon.

A small octopus.
A small octopus.

On a Sunday afternoon at Hood Canal (an inlet on the west side of Puget Sound), after two days of training new divers and getting them qualified to receive their diving certification, one of my staff, a female, asked me if I could show her an octopus. I told her to not say anything about our mission. I had a special reef that nobody went to because it was a long swim, and I did not want anyone to know about it. This out-of-the-way reef was my favorite place for underwater photography, where I could always find lots of octopus and many other critters as well.
 
We quietly swam away from the rest of the divers and made our way to the top of the reef. We descended to a depth of 60 feet and swam along a rock wall. There was a long, deep diagonal crevasse along the wall. I shined my dive light inside of the crevasse and spotted two small octopus. I backed off and motioned to my dive buddy to come down and take a close look.

A octopus showing off their suckers.
A octopus showing off their suckers.

As she was watching the two, small octopus, I swam a little further and encountered a very large octopus that was halfway out of the crevasse. I swam in close and began petting my new friend on the head (mantle) and stroking his tentacles. I had learned that on the male octopus, one tentacle will not have suction cups near the end. As I petted the big guy, I was able to move all of his large tentacles out of the hole and set him gently on a rock. After a few minutes, I gave hand signals to my dive buddy that we needed to find some crab to feed our friend. We left, swam around gathering a few crab and then returned. My friend was still on the rock where I had left him, and we were able to feed him a nice snack.
 
As my friend was enjoying his snack, I moved in close with my face mask just an inch or so from his eyes. I watched him open and close his eyes as I stroked his mantle. After a few precious moments, he stretched out a large tentacle and gently patted me on the head. I had tears in my eyes and was sad that I was running low on air and had to leave. This was my extremely close encounter with a very large male octopus.
 
I am very blessed to have such good friends in my underwater world.

A close up with a large octopus.
A close up with a large octopus.

About the Author:
Tommy Hemphill was attracted to the underwater world at a very young age.  His father was a scientist, an aquatic biologist working for GE at the Hanford, WA nuclear facility.  He was also an avid tropical fish breeder and Tommy & brother Micky grew up surrounded by aquariums around the living room and in the basement.  At age 14, Tommy tagged along with a couple of older guys in the neighborhood when they all decided to make their fortune as underwater treasure hunters.
 
A few years later, Tom found his passion in diving as a photographer and teacher.  He’s enjoyed a lifelong career as a diving educator and diving business owner.  In 2010, Tom raised funds and inspired several friends and diving associates to establish the Northwest Diving History Association, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation dedicated to recording and preserving the history of the diving pioneers on the Pacific Northwest cold-water diving region.
www.divinghistory.org

To learn more about octopuses and other sea creatures off the Northwest Pacific coast, check out Tom's book Diving off the Oregon Coast!

Have you ever had an up close and personal encounter with a sea creature? Let us know in the comments below!
 
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