My Octopus: A Love Story

Sue Proffitt

© Copyright 2023 by Sue Proffitt

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash
Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

So when did I fall in love with the octopus? Like many people, when I saw the film ‘My Octopus Teacher’; it was such an extraordinary account of deep emotional connection between human and non-human and I saw the octopus for what it is: an immensely intelligent, emotionally aware, sentient animal. I also had a glimpse into the complex, challenging life it lives underwater. But more than all of that, the film was a love-story, and the truth is that I have loved animals deeply all my life, with very few exceptions. Not in a sentimental way: not wanting to turn them into ‘pets’ or anthropomorphise them: on the contrary, I love them for being so other, so not like us. I loved the film because it unashamedly showed me that I’m not alone in loving other species deeply.

I’ve also always loved the sea; I swam almost before I could walk, and have always lived near the ocean. Being in the water feels like being ‘home’. Recently, an early memory surfaced: being about six years old on holiday, swimming back to shore, and seeing a man with a harpoon also striding out of the water onto the beach. Impaled on his harpoon was a small octopus. Its arms were frantically moving up and down the blade that punctured right through its body. The memory ends there, backlit in its shock and pain. Perhaps the beginnings of my love of the octopus began then.

I’ve never seen one living in the wild. Last year I visited my brother who lives in Western Australia; we hadn’t seen each other for quite a few years. My dream was that I might see an octopus whilst there. Every day I swam at Yallingup, a beautiful marine reserve about fifteen minutes’ drive from where my brother lives. This was a protected reef: no fishing, no netting, no harpooning, no persecution of any kind of all that lived there. How peaceful that made me feel, swimming there – to know that I wouldn’t be constantly on the lookout for someone wanting to hurt something – it was as if a bit of me could truly relax, absorb and delight in all that I saw. And there was so much to see: so many varieties of fish, shells, starfish, crabs, rays …. but no octopus. I was told they lived there, but they’re very hard to see.

And then one day, I was walking into the water with my mask and snorkel as usual, and a woman I didn’t know and had never seen before was just coming out. She looked directly at me and said “I’ve just seen an octopus. Would you like to see it?” I stared at her. It felt uncanny: almost as if some divine intervention had suddenly manifested in the shape of this woman who was offering me the thing I most wanted, with no preliminaries, out of nowhere. “Yes! I said, “I’d love to see one” and followed her into the water. She swam out from the shore, not very far, hovered over a patch of sand with rocks in it, and pointed down. I followed her gaze.

Without someone showing me where she was, I would never have spotted my octopus. Swimming over her den, all I could see was a ridge of rock, covered in the pale, pearly sand and weeds of the reef. But moving round to another angle, and swimming towards it rather than above it, I could see that the ridge of rock was actually a crevice and in there, looking for all the world like someone who’d just woken up and was leaning out of her doorway, surveying the morning, was an octopus.

All I could see was the front of her torso and a few of her arms folded underneath her, supporting her, and her head. She was literally in her doorway. And she was big: a brown-gold colour, filling her crevice. I was filled with wonder; I couldn’t believe that my wish had been granted. I spent the rest of my time at the reef that morning watching her, memorising exactly where she was, so that I could locate her again the next day. I noticed how her eyes were closed: those extraordinary eyes that have rectangular pupils. I say ‘she’ and ‘her’; I have no idea if my octopus was female; maybe that was an association I made because of the ‘Octopus Teacher’ film.

By the time I found my octopus, I had about nine days left in Australia. Those nine days became a kind of pilgrimage at some deep inchoate level, defined by my visits to see her every morning. The first thing I did, on getting into the water, was to go and find her. The weather was volatile – it was early Spring – and on some days visibility in the water was very poor. More than once I lost the whereabouts of her den and swam around hopelessly, trying to identify the ridge where she was. When it was stormy, sand blew around underwater and could easily hide her location. On one occasion, in a violent wind and spumy sea, I was the only one foolish enough to be in the water and when I finally found her den, she wasn’t in there. I felt devastated, diving down again and again to try and peer into the crevice: no sign of her. All sorts of scenarios passed through my mind; had she been attacked overnight? Had the storm wrecked her den? Finally, I dived down one last time, filled with despair and there, right at the very back, I saw a curled brown shape; she was there, but keeping well back from the whirling sand. Her crevice,was much deeper than it seemed, going right in underneath the rocky ledge on top. The relief that swept through me was enormous; it was as if I could settle now, could get out of the water and go on with my day, because she was all right.

My story isn’t going to be full of octopus facts; you can easily find out about Cephalopods online. Enough to say that the octopus has nine brains: a central governing cortex and each of their arms has its own independent ‘brain’. In effect, the octopus makes decisions by committee, with each of its ‘brains’ contributing to the thought processes. An octopus has three hearts. They are masters of camouflage, changing colour to blend in with their environment, and their soft bodies mean they can squeeze into the smallest spaces. All this I knew, but I didn’t know what it would feel like to meet one every day. I noticed so many things: how she hoarded shells outside her den which changed on a daily basis; I imagine she brought them back to pile up in front of the opening to her den, in case she needed a defence against attack. I noticed the litter of crustacean shells and broken carapaces around her environment that suggested what she had fed on the night before. I never saw her leave her den; the octopus hunts at night and rests during the day. Often when I floated above her, she seemed to be sleeping, or half-sleeping; if I dived down, one eye might open to scan me. I started to bring her shells as gifts; once, I dived down to deposit one near her and she stretched out an arm and touched it. Again, it feels impossible to describe the delight that gave me. I spent hours studying her: octopuses breathe in oxygen through their gills and exhale through a tube called a siphon; I watched her siphons dilate and close, dilate and close, rhythmically. I wondered if she was dreaming. I watched swimmers pass to and fro above her rocky ledge, unknowing of her presence and part of me wanted to tell everyone about her: why it was I was simply floating and swimming round the same spot on the reef every morning. Another, stronger, part felt enormously protective of her and didn’t want anyone to know about her.

I knew that she must come out and hunt at night and I longed to see her emerge fully from her den. I decided to swim in the reef at sunset. I got into the water about six o’ clock one evening and, even as I got in, I could feel how the energy of the reef was radically different. There was still enough light to see underwater and as soon as I began to snorkel the shock of how different everything was hit me; the water was full of predators, and they were active! During the day when I swam I often saw big rays moving slowly above the rocks and weed of the reef like vast birds or resting on the sand - strange, mesmerising winged things, but not threatening. Now, I saw two straight away, moving with a velocity and intention that was frightening. Darting in and out of rocks, changing direction in a moment, swift and ruthless, they were like black raptors. Everything underwater seemed to be fizzing with an energy and purpose that simply wasn’t there during the day; everything that needed to eat was out, and moving. I started to swim towards the den of the octopus and halted; I longed to see her and felt sure she would be mobile, but this felt far too risky and the light was going fast. I got out, and thus never saw my octopus out of her den and on the move.

Octopuses don’t live long: maybe a year, or eighteen months …. there was something so precious about this encounter for that reason. Here I was, passing through, lucky enough to have this time with my brother in this extraordinary country and here she was, ‘my’ octopus. The miracle of me seeing her, and being able to see her every day for about nine days: the miracle of this encounter. I’m sixty three years old; this was a first-time experience. From the outside, in a world where value for money is so often equated with what you ‘do’ and how much action you can pack into a brief spell of time, this might seem almost dull; I can imagine someone saying ‘so you saw her in a rocky cleft every day and she never came out? She never did anything? That’s right: she simply was. She simply allowed me to see her every morning, to observe her without intrusion. She simply allowed me to be with her, and that was enough, more than enough. It was a gift. Something so different from me and yet – there we were, together. She touched a shell I gave her. She permitted me to watch her whilst she was resting. She allowed me to observe how she breathed, how she coped in tough weather, to recognise when she was relaxed and when she was in a more vigilant state.

My brother was gently amused by my preoccupation with my octopus. Every day when I returned from my swim, he would ask me if I’d seen her but, although he was interested, he was never curious to see her himself, although he’s never seen an octopus in the wild either. That’s OK; we’re not all interested in the same things, but it seemed to bring home to me that being with her was almost like speaking another language: one that wasn’t readily translatable. I could come back and paraphrase to my brother how it felt to see my octopus that morning, but it was a poor facsimile for how it had been, for me.

And so I came to my last day. Why are endings always so painful? Life is inextricable from endings because nothing ever stays the same: everything’s always changing. And so I knew this moment was coming right from the start and yet, still, it was so hard. On that final morning the weather was rough again and visibility was poor, but I found her, retreated well inside her crevice. Yes, I said a prayer for her – that she would be safe and well for the rest of her life, however short that was.
And I thanked her, just for being. How I loved that reef and the fact that it was safe for all the creatures that lived in it, including her. I hovered over her den, wanting to take something as a physical memory of her, but unwilling to remove any of her precious shells that she might need. Finally, I dived down and took a little shell, like the coil at the centre of a nautilus. It was golden, like a small sun-wheel – an incidental piece of beauty that somehow seemed to hold my encounter with my octopus at its heart. I still have this; maybe I’ll make it into a brooch.

That’s almost the end of my story, except to say that a few of my brother’s friends swim regularly in the reef and they knew about my octopus. One of them was really interested and I showed him where she was. After I’d left I got occasional messages via my brother from his friend, to tell me that she was still there. Every time I heard this news there was a deep tug in my heart, as if she was reaching out from her crevice and literally pulling on it. And then, a few weeks ago, the message came – as I knew it would eventually – that she wasn’t there anymore. The crevice was empty. I suppose it’s possible she’s simply moved home, but far more likely that she’s died. The part of me that had been waiting for this news went quiet. I went upstairs and held the small golden shell. Held it until it felt warm in my hand.

Sue Proffitt lives in South Devon, in the UK, in a coastguard cottage right next to the sea. She swims in the sea regularly, walks the coast path, and is passionate about the wildlife around her. She writes poetry and has two collections published by small independent presses: Open After Dark (Oversteps, 2017) and The Lock-Picker (Palewell Press, 2021). She is currently working on her third collection.

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