The “Eel” and the Octo

By Ross Whippo (Underwater Whippo)

A couple of weeks ago I went on a fundive in Barkley Sound.  Now, I may dive a lot, but in the last month or two they have all been working dives, so it was nice to get out for a leisurely dip without the transect, collection bag, or quadrat in my hand.  Instead I just brought my camera, and am I ever glad I did!

I set out with a group of staff and researchers from the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre who were looking for some subtidal adventure.  We boarded the Broken Island Adventures‘ diving vessel, the ‘Grunt Sculpin’, and set out for a pinnacle in the middle of Imperial Eagle Channel.  This is an extremely exposed site, where a rocky mount rises up from around 100m depth to just 5m below the surface of the water.  In fact, it took us a little time to even locate the site, using the boat’s anchor as a depth sounder.

Once in the water, we slowly followed the anchor line down and encountered some of the better visibility I’ve ever seen in Barkley Sound.  I could see at least 15m across the pinnacle, and when you’re used to only seeing about 3m away, this is a vast improvement.  The pinnacle itself was very rugged, covered in plumose anemones and more rockfish than I’ve ever seen in one place.  China rockfish, tiger rockfish, and black rockfish were around every turn, but the best was yet to come.

As my buddy and I rounded a corner at about 18m below the surface, a movement caught my eye.  Turning my attention to the motion, I quickly saw something that divers could only wish for, a full grown wolf eel out in the open, traveling across the bottom.  I immediately pulled out my camera and began shooting video.  I followed the wolf eel for a moment until it settled down on some rock. Then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw a large blob flash past.  Looking up from the wolf eel I saw another amazing sight, a giant pacific octopus had just swam past me and was showing off an amazing warning display.  The colors and patterns on its body rippled and flowed as it puffed itself up to look as big as possible.  I was incredulous.  I had to look back at the wolf eel just to make sure that what I was seeing was actually real. Just then I saw another group of divers coming into view. I dropped the camera and began yelling wildly into my regulator, waving my hands in the water trying to get their attention. Finally they saw me and we were able to appreciate this sight together.

The giant pacific octopus and the wolf eel are somewhat in competition with each other in nature.  The both like to use the same sorts of small rocky caverns as dens and have been seen ‘duking it out’ to obtain the choicest resting place.  The wolf eels use the dens as protection, the octopus also use them to lay their eggs. If you see an octopus under the rocks with what look like long strings of rice hanging from the ceiling, you’ve just encountered an octopus mother watching after her young.

I’m not sure what the “eel” and the octo I encountered that day were doing with each other.  Perhaps I interrupted a death match for the nicest rocky condo on the pinnacle.  Maybe there were just working out their differences, negotiating a peace. In any case, I felt that I had the encounter of a lifetime and was fortunate to see these creatures out in the open, not knowing when I would see one again.  That is, until I saw another octopus ten minutes later….