We were in Bermuda on a recent filming trip and
were based in a ramshackle old house on a very small island that
served as a yellow-fever station, a prisoner-of-war camp and a
deep-sea research station through its chequered history. The children
were those of a colleague working with us.
The day was grey, humid and windless and, with
the wet season upon us, there was little hope of the weather improving
to the point where we could seriously consider filming. Anyway,
nothing of interest was likely to happen on a day as dull as this.
Instead, I thought the children might like to see us release the
young octopus we had been filming in a specially designed tank.
"We'll return the octopus to the sea, kids and you'll see just
how well he camouflages himself as he departs."
We set out for the north shore, where the eroded
limestone has weathered into a dangerous matrix of knife-edged
honeycombs. Young children would be in real danger here, but Peter
and Jenny were older and well used to this island habitat that
had been home to them on many a filming trip.
As we walked down the casuarina-lined path - bucketed
octopus and all - several hundred land crabs scuttled into the
undergrowth, their orange pincers held aloft in cautious defence.
It dawned on me, as we hopped and sidestepped, that if we could
put the octopus into a small, clean pool, the children would get
a better chance to witness its consummate ability to change colour
to suit its background.
On site, I located a perfect pool. It was a metre
or so across, 20cm deep and with not a recess, nook or cranny
in sight. The tide would cover the area within an hour, and the
octopus would be safe from predation, especially with us around.
As I upended the bucket, I noticed a crack in
the floor of the pool, but it was only a millimetre or two in
width. Nothing could get into that. As the octopus touched his
temporary home, its colour-changing alchemy began and, within
a second or two, it had assumed a total hue and pattern that perfectly
matched its surroundings. The gasp from the children showed they,
too, were impressed. Our 15cm friend slowly traversed the pool.
Its movements, like that of all octopods, were as effortless as
oil over a metal road. Ten a tip of one tentacle found the narrow
crack. That was it. Within 10 seconds its entire head, mantle,
siphon and tentacles slithered from view. It was not what I had
intended, but it was more impressive than I had expected. But
what was to follow would leave this little event cold.
While the kids stayed near the first pool, my
wife and I scrambled over a low bluff and found ourselves looking
into a large, weed-filled pool with overhangs and a rock-strewn
bottom. To one side, a large rock came close to the surface. Some
rock - this one was breathing.
There, sitting with its eye turrets almost clear
of the water, was a large octopus with what I guessed were metre-long
tentacles all bunched up beneath it. As it rhythmically ventilated
its gills in a steady and pronounced movement, we speculated on
what it was up to. To see if we could elicit a response that might
give us a clue, I held out my leg and cast a shadow over it.
The response was electric: four sucker-covered
arms whipped upwards and latched onto my sandal-clad foot. My
wife laughed out loud. There I was on one leg, with the other
firmly anchored to a large octopus a metre out from the edge of
a deep pool flanked by razor-sharp limestone. I did the only thing
I could. I froze. What seemed a lifetime later, the octopus suddenly
released my foot. Only then did I realise the reason. A small
octopus had jetted itself out from almost beneath my feet, leaving
a copious screen of ink as it fled. Like a thunderbolt, the large
octopus jetted off in hot pursuit. Both disappeared beneath the
overhang on the far side of the pool. We exchanged expressions
of surprise and clambered on over the rocks.
Only minutes later, Jenny screamed. She was out
of sight, and she sounded scared. We struggled back over the treacherously
eroded rock. As we crested a ledge, we stopped in our tracks.
A few metres below us were the children. Peter had his arms around
his sister, and both were staring wide-eyed into the large pool
we had left five minutes earlier. A bluff of rock ahead of them
stopped them from fleeing from an amazing spectacle: approaching
at speed across the full width of the pool came the large octopus
with two of its eight arms flailing like bullwhips above the water
surface. The arms were half a metre clear of the water and it
was making straight for Jenny. I shouted to them to freeze. They
knew the command and for once were compliant. The octopus arrived
at the very rim of the pool, arms extended towards Jenny's bare
leg. Suddenly, there was a commotion. From almost beneath the
large octopus, the small one jetted away in a cloud of ink. In
the same instant, the larger one followed in hot pursuit, depositing
its own mucus-bound ink mass in its wake. Both octopods disappeared
from view beneath the opposite overhang. Jenny, visibly trembling,
let out a gasp of relief. All this and not a camera in sight.
This article was written by Peter Parks
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