How to Find an Octopus at Low Tide in Tacoma

A while back, we shared a video of a small cephalopod crawling along the beach, and you guys went nuts. That was one of our most popular social media posts for quite a while. Since then, we’ve had octopuses on the brain.

Personally, the closest I’ve come to an octopus is at the Point Defiance Zoo. I have yet to witness any eight-legged land scurrying in the wild—but I want to.

I recently called Marc Duncan, Senior Marine Biologist at the PDZA to ask him how I could find one of these little guys myself. 

First thing to make clear: The purpose of this article is not to encourage octopus hunting, poking, prodding, picking up, putting on your face, wrestling, etc. Yes, all of these things have been done. 

In the 1960s, Tacoma beaches were popular destinations for the competitive pastime of octopus wrestling. 

The caption of this photo reads, “He conquered the huge octopus about 40 feet down by jamming the breathing vent until it suffocated. He attempted to revive it once on shore but his efforts were not successful. Mr. Behnke ended up eating the octopus rather than wasting it.”

In 1963, the World Octopus Wrestling Championships were held at Titlow. Dozens of cephalopods were dragged ashore, to be either eaten, given to aquariums, or returned to the sea… if they survived the underwater invasion. 

Wikipedia fair use photo – “Photograph showing divers with the largest catch of the 1963 World Octopus Wrestling Championships, a 57-pound North Pacific Giant Octopus.Originally published in: Skin Diver Magazine July 1963”

People’s fanatic love of octopuses makes them do dumb shit. Maybe you remember the Tacoma woman who received national attention for putting an octopus on her face? Or the 19 year-old who got blacklisted by divers and publicly shamed by the city of Seattle after hunting an octopus at a popular beach?

Yes, we can love on our eight-legged friends, but we should do it from a respectful distance. Sound good? When it comes to marine life, Duncan’s motto is “Observe, not disturb.”

Turns out spotting an octopus on land is not actually that rare of an occurrence. The ideal conditions for seeing an octopus—without having a diving certification or an $18 zoo ticket—are during low tides, especially as the tide is going out. Pay attention to the moon cycles, as full and new moon periods tend to yield the lowest tides. You can also check a tide chart to plan ahead.

When the water levels have receded enough, it’s possible that a den might be exposed. Octopuses like to live in tight quarters, which is impressive, given that the giant Pacific octopus can grow up to weigh around 100 pounds and have arms that reach up to 10 feet. Nonetheless, they can squeeze through an opening the size of a baseball. Not every GPO gets quite so large, and you probably won’t see one of the big guys on land. 

When divers search for octopuses, they keep an eye out for rocky ledges, slabs of concrete or other surfaces that might create a comfortable dwelling for a tenant. A telltale sign that someone might be home, is a pile of midden. Midden is a cephalopod’s welcome mat, but instead of coarse bristles to clean gunk off your shoes, it’s just the discards of the octopus’ lunch (mostly shells). Octopus don’t clean up before greeting visitors, and for that we are grateful. 

Stena Troyer took that video that everyone loved so much. She works as a Science Specialist for Harbor WildWatch and spends a lot of time on the beach. She’s seen quite a few octopuses on land and sea. Her advice for octo-spotting is more or less the same as Duncan’s. What it really boils down to, though, is being at the right place at the right time.

When deciding on a location for your low-tide stroll, it’s important to pick a rocky beach. Sandy beaches, while less likely to give you a twisted ankle, won’t yield too much in the way of octopus sightings. While Duncan wouldn’t disclose his go-to spots (a diver never reveals his secrets) the shoreline under the Point Defiance Marina, Tacoma Narrows Park, or Titlow would be perfectly suitable terrain. I mean, Titlow was the site of a world octopus wrestling competition, and isn’t there a 600 pound octopus living under the Narrows?

On your carefully planned beach walk, you suddenly see a small reddish leg extending out from behind a rock. Maybe it’s not a giant pacific octopus, but it could be an East Pacific red octopus, like the little guy in Troyer’s video. Either way, you got lucky. But what now? 

Again, please don’t do any of the things I listed earlier. No octopuses on the face. Don’t even touch it. That’s advice for the octopus’s sake, as well as yours. They can only be out of the water for limited amounts of time, so don’t impede their scurry back to the sea. Another good reason: octopuses are venomous. They have a beak hidden on their belly areas, which releases venom upon biting. It probably wouldn’t kill you, but it will hurt like hell. The woman who put the octopus on her face learned that the hard way. 

PDZA has a special permit that allows them to collect octopuses from the Puget Sound area. They always avoid popular dive sites, because divers often adopt octopus buddies that they like to check up on every once in a while. Which again, explains the animosity towards the Seattle teen. With the proper license, it is still legal to hunt octopuses in certain areas. You might get some serious hate for it, though. 

GPOs have a relatively short lifespan of 3-5 years. PDZA tries to collect one every 6 to 12 months. Currently, however, there is no GPO at the zoo. Their last one passed in the summer of 2020, but the dive team has been unable to locate another to collect despite several dive trips over the past few months. Duncan suspects that the octopuses have moved into deeper water due to rising temperatures. The dive team is unable to swim deeper than 80 feet, so they might be just out of reach. 

If you happen to have a successful octo-spotting expedition, be sure to tag us in your pictures.

Photos by Ella Banken and Sierra Hartman

  1. Thanks for telling people to leave them alone and educating people on what idiots humans have been and can be.
    Love your magazine!
    #oceanfriendlyrestaurants, #southsoundsurfrider, #breachthelowersnakeriverdams, #savesalmon, #saveorca, #plasticoceans,
    #T-Town, #253love

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