My Octopus Friend: Stillness Speaks (Part 1)
On 8 June 2021, by coincidence World Ocean Day, I began an unexpected, marvelous friendship with an octopus I began to call Mof (My Octopus Friend). Even though we only had 14 encounters together until she simply vanished after 24 June, I know that these unique moments of wondrous connection, communication and co-creation of a familiar bond, even friendship, with such an incredible 'alien' being will stay with me forever. Enjoy this multi-part series describing the development and evolution of our bond.
The First Encounter
The morning of June 8th, the tide was quite low, the Moon waning, almost New, the beginning of the lunar cycle. When the Moon is 'new' it means it's in alignment with the Sun and Earth and appears black in the night sky (as the Earth blocks it from reflecting the Sun back to us). The Full Moon, of course, is the opposite when alignment allows us to see the full reflection when wolves howl and people sing about 'amore' and big pizza pies in the sky. Tides are more pronounced when these celestial bodies align and it's possible to visit the tide pools and discover their wonders.
I debated about where to immerse as the sun rose around my shoulders, clouds slowly moved high in the sky, and kelp covered the beach at the Bay. The energetic, unfriendly man with his three beagles passed briskly as usual then the beach was deserted. Peace then reigned at the shoreline and I decided to walk to the Womb Pool where I hadn't been for quite a while. Climbing over the limpet and sea snail covered granite rocks, I reached the beautiful, clear elongated pool I've come to know and love. I didn't feel like swimming here though. I stopped and took a few photos and paused to admire the beauty exposed at low tide. I let memories, both good and bad, of swimming in this special spot, a great learning center, wash over me. I imagined how my body would be floating in the water if the tide were high but now, at low tide, all was vulnerable, open, open for observation and depredation.
Then I thought, I'm going to check out the laño (the word in the local language, Gallego, for 'octopus den') and see if there might be an octopus in residence. At low tide octopuses often occupy small, hidden openings or tiny caves in rocks that remain flooded with water even during the lowest neap tides. 'How would an octopus know this?' I wondered. I got down on my hands and knees, observed the promising pile of mussel shells scattered at the entrance and, to my delight, I saw that indeed that an octopus rested inside.
Excitement bubbled inside of me. Months and months had passed since I had seen an octopus in this laño. Nestled deep in the den a tell-tale pulsating flow of water tipped me off as did the purplish-white mottled skin, imitating the granite, of her tentacles visible for the observant eye. Among locals, knowledge of these laños is top secret and handed down orally generation to generation, as our local common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is a culinary delicacy here in Galicia in northwestern Spain on the Atlantic coast. I had just made a valuable discovery, not for my own kitchen, but I wondered, Who else knows about this den? I lifted my head and looked around to make sure no one was watching me.
Eyes like and unlike his own regarded him with the sort of ersatz wisdom nature otherwise gave to owls.by Adrian Tchaikovsky, The Children of Ruin
In this short video, the octopus and I check each other out and eye one another for the first time. Notice how the color of her eyes change in the three videos I've included in this article. You can also see her dark yellow siphon or funnel rhythmically flushing out water that she uses to swim, steer or shoot water.
I decided to make contact. I gently immersed my right hand into the water at the entrance and she immediately came out to explore with a curious tentacle. An octopus has eight arms with the head in the center. Imagine that you divide those eight into two halves with four arms on the right and four arms on the left. Her beautiful multi-shaded purple arm, what would be her first arm on the right, unfurled with its double row of sensitive suckers and latched onto my right hand sensing, tasting, feeling.
Wow. Amazement, surprise and delight washed over me as she delicately and curiously reached out to me with first one arm and then the other to explore me more. I felt no fear as I have some understanding of octopuses as it is part of the local culture and I have handled and observed them in the open water while snorkeling but never at low tide outside of one's den. Feeling the touch of the sensitive suckers on my skin was marvelous, exciting and I hoped she would like to keep engaging with me.
Since I like to take photos, I had both my mobile phone camera and my red Olympus T6 water camera. I began to film this extraordinary moment. She immediately latched onto the red camera with several tentacles pulling with great strength and tried to pull it into the den with her. In the photos above, she reaches out curiously with one and then two arms to grab the camera. An image of the camera, a mini-submarine, being pulled under by a mighty kraken crossed my mind. I had to resist with firmness though I was tempted to let her take it and see what would happen. We played a bit of tug of war. It was funny, fun and felt like play. In this next video, I show some of our play and first contacts.
To reinforce my friendliness and good intentions, I got up and went to get some mussels for her from a nearby rock. I squatted down again in front of the den and handed her a mussel. She delicately took them from me with her left arm, one by one, coiling her tentacle around the mussels and then moving them toward her center where her mouth and strong parrot-like beak are. I felt grateful and excited for this incredible experience. She played with my hand a bit more and then I released and she retreated back into the cave. We'd been interacting for about 15 minutes.
What if we were born in a tide pool and our attraction to the sea is a coming home?by Jonathan White, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
As I walked back to the kelp-filled Bay for a swim, I realized I had just crossed a border, a special border, between the known and wild, somehow established a bridge across an invisible portal connecting two alien species sharing a common world in which one dominates the other with mostly hubris and ignorance. I felt great humbleness, hope and desire to know if it were possible to meet and connect again or had it been simply a fortuitous, random, insignificant encounter. As I swam across another marvelous portal into the alien world of the sea, that could so easily take my life and breath away, I floated through the primordial soupy, kelp-filled, life-giving nutrient water, and remembered the octopus's gentle, exploratory touch on my skin. Gratitude flooded my spirit.
Discovering the Laño (octopus den)
How did I discover the octopus den in the first place? First came stillness and then came discovery. On 19 May 2020 in a moment of stillness on a day very, very similar to the morning of 8 June 2021, I rested quietly at the edge of the Womb Pool, looking out to the open sea beyond and the crashing waves. Peace and stillness surrounded me at the tide pool, which was enjoying a respite from the incessant, tidal wave action that would soon return in its constant cycle of rise and fall, ebb and flow. Inner silence mirrored the outer calm. In my Instagram post of 20 May 2020 I wrote (and I've edited here):
Stillness Speaks is a title of a book by Eckhart Tolle and a profound concept. Nature is always communicating and offering useful insights which many times only become evident through stillness and allowing oneself to simply be in a place with presence. Often unintentionally, heightened awareness of one's surroundings results as the mental noise retreats like an ebbing tide. A feeling of oneness with the environment may take over.Everything about the day was still. Observe the water in the second image [in the IG post below]. Very low tide. I had just immersed myself in that pool [The Womb Pool] and was slowly getting dressed when I noticed a strange pattern of water movement in a miniscule pool of water on my left. I couldn't figure what was causing it so I got down on my hands and knees to investigate. Ah...an octopus taking refuge in its tiny cave. It was blowing water through its siphon causing the ripple. I reached out to gently touch its slick skin and it pulled back from me but apparently didn't feel threatened enough to throw its ink. In the video I pull back so you can see just how small a space the large octopus took to shelter in. At low tide, the octopus is vulnerable primarily to human predators. It waits in its lair for the tide to rise and to return to the freedom of the open sea.
Stillness really does speak. In my moment of stillness back in May 2020, my senses opened to perceive a subtle rhythmic pulsating movement by my foot in small pool of water as I stood there looking out to sea. I have photos of the Womb Pool that morning and the octopus with a pile of mussel shells on its front porch. The octopus calmly sat back inside the cave but at no moment made any attempt to come out and respond to my hand. Curiously, this octopus did not reach back out and I did not insist. While I did return to check and see if an octopus was in residence from time to time, I did not try to establish a connection again.
Apparently, I wasn't prepared yet to cross the border into the wilderness within me and the tide pool and apparently neither was the octopus. Then the den was empty for months and I stopped observing it until 8 June 2021. Meanwhile…other events were unfolding in my life over the next year to prepare me for my meeting with Mof (My Octopus Friend, as I came to call her). But I'm getting ahead of myself….
In Part 2 I describe how I got the idea to try and connect with the octopus and how our next encounters evolved after this first exciting day.
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Dawn Swimmer has taken her love of swimming in the open sea to exploring the enchanting mysteries that dwell beneath. In 2020 she sensed movement in the Womb Pool, a favorite location of hers. Upon inspection she noticed an octopus dwelling within a den in a niche of the rocks. After checking for months to come, Dawn Swimmer was rewarded with once again seeing the octopus in June of this year. There began a remarkable friendship. In spectacular photos and videos this friendship is observed with images of the octopus reaching out to the hand and arm of Dawn Swimmer in a gentle and playful way. At one point mussels are gifted to the octopus who tries to pull the camera from the hand of Dawn Swimmer. They continue this friendship until the octopus disappears about two weeks later. This story with beautiful photography is both touching and profound. Happily, the story will continue for additional posts.
You have a great sense of observation, but I wouldn't mess with MOF. We have a lot of Octopus in Casablanca and I have seen many hidden in rocks when the tide is low.