Washington State has no shortage of octopus myths. The well known Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus haunts our canopies from coast to mountain top, but it’s Tacoma that is home to the real King of the North. Deep below the surface of the Tacoma Narrows, among the ruins of a bridge once nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” the King Octopus is said to live. At a rumored six hundred pounds and with eight massive tentacles, the King certainly lives up to his title. Noted as one of the eleven wonders of Tacoma, the legend of this giant octopus is one that is ingrained in Tacoma’s colorful culture.
But how much truth is there to this particular local legend? As it turns out, quite a bit. While the reality is on a much smaller scale, it is just as fascinating. While no evidence of a six hundred pound colossus has been found, the ruins of the old Galloping Gertie bridge that fell in the 1940s do provide the perfect home to one of the most incredible creatures on earth, the octopus, and one type in particular, the giant pacific octopus.
A popular diving spot among scuba divers, people come from all over to visit what’s known as an “octopus hotspot.” What makes this area such a great place to do the tentacle tango and spot one of these eight-armed facehuggers are the ruins of the bridge itself. Octopuses tend to live in dens, preferring to dwell under rocky cover in order to easily camouflage. Since their bodies are entirely compressible, meaning they can fit through any opening around the same size as their beak, areas with ruins like the Tacoma Narrows provide excellent hiding places of all shapes and sizes for them to squish themselves into.
The giant pacific octopus is the largest known species. However, the likelihood that one has gotten up to 600 lbs is unfortunately fairly low. Typically an adult giant pacific octopus ranges from 33-50 lbs. Big or small though, the size of a giant pacific octopus is one of the least interesting things about it. Everyone can agree that they are fascinating creatures and it’s certainly not a bad critter to rep the Tacoma area.
The mischievous cephalopods rank as the most intelligent invertebrate, being able to solve puzzles, open bottles, and even recognize human faces. They have taste receptors too, called chemoreceptors, on their suction cups. That’s right, they can taste your face with their tentacles and identify you by the flavor.
Bringing home those ultra SciFi feels creeping up your spine, octopuses also have copper-based, rather than iron-based blood, called hemocyanin. Which mean their blood isn’t red, it’s blue. Yep. Blue. Just like that freaky alien that has been hanging out under your bed since you were eight. And it gets better. Cells called chromatophores allow octopuses to change the color and even texture of their skin to better camouflage into their environment, making it pretty easy to sneak up on any group of misfits just trying to get into Moria on a journey to save middle earth.
So next time you’re thinking about playing hide-and-seek with one of these Mystiques of the sea, just remember to double check your oxygen tank because you might be down there awhile. But just because they seem like they’re out of this world, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of love. In fact, some might say they are three times more capable of love than you because they have three separate hearts. So give a little love to an octopus next time you see one, especially Tacoma’s King Octopus. Just don’t get too friendly, because they do have paralytic toxins in their salivary glands.
If you’re interested in seeing one of these charming beasties in their colorful flesh, check out the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium for a closer look!
Illustrations by Dakota Harr