Whatever challenges that U.S. Census workers face, it is unlikely they have ever been required to engage in underwater tug-of-war. Volunteers on the octopus...

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Whatever challenges that U.S. Census workers face, it is unlikely they have ever been required to engage in underwater tug-of-war.

Volunteers on the octopus census, be ready.

Dive shop owner Randy Williams, who helps the Seattle Aquarium gather data on Puget Sound’s resident giant Pacific octopus (Octopus dofleini), once nearly lost his measuring stick (a PVC pipe with meter markings on it) to one of these curious creatures underwater while checking its body size. When Williams gently introduced the device into the octopus’s den, the animal wrapped a suckered arm around the stick and refused to let go.

“We struggled for about 10 minutes,” says Williams. “My dive partner almost drowned, she was laughing so hard.” Less cautious divers have loaned a glove or other object to one of these cephalopods, only to see it carried away to the octopus den for good.

The Presidents Day weekend census, which is part of Seattle Aquarium’s upcoming Octopus Week, is now in its sixth year, and its popularity among divers is testament to the octopus’ status as one of our region’s most-favored invertebrates. Last year 169 area divers participated in the official count, spotting (and at least attempting to measure) 72 giant Pacifics in locations such as Whidbey Island, Port Townsend and the piers near the Seattle Aquarium.

If you go

Embracing the wily octopus

Octopus Week at Seattle Aquarium is this Saturday through Feb. 27. Giant Pacific octopuses will be released into Puget Sound on Saturday and Feb. 26 at noon, and visitors will be able to watch by live video. Other activities will include crafts for kids, daily octopus feedings, and a test of octopus wit with Octopus Enrichment Day on Feb. 25. Seattle Aquarium is on Pier 59 on the waterfront, 1483 Alaskan Way. Admission $5-$12, children 2 and younger free. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 206-386-4300 or www.seattleaquarium.org.

Octopus census

Divers interested in volunteering for this weekend’s octopus census may contact Roland Anderson at roland.Anderson@seattle.gov or 206-386-4346.

Randy Williams also organizes census-goers through his dive shop, Starfish Diving, at 600 W. Nickerson St., Seattle. 206-286-6596 or www.starfishdivinginc.com.

Bandito Charters captain Rick Myers, who takes groups to dive sites during the event, says people seek octopus encounters year-round. Myers suspects it’s because the animals seem equally interested in humans. “They’ll interact with you,” he says. “When you approach fish they just go away, but for some reason with the octopus it feels like there’s a connection.”

Getting to know them

According to Seattle Aquarium biologist Dr. Roland Anderson, who runs the census, that’s not just a feeling. A groundbreaking study he co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Mather shows that “octopuses have personalities,” he says.

He and his colleague have also done research at the aquarium showing octopuses engage in “play behavior” — the first invertebrates for which this claim has been made — and that the animals sleep. Octopuses are some of the few aquarium inhabitants to be given names and, says Anderson, they seem to earn their monikers. Octopuses past have included Leisure Suit Larry, whose eight arms were “all over” aquarium workers who visited him, and Lucretia McEvil, who trashed her tank like a punk-rock diva. Current residents include the gentle Thoreau and beefy Titan, god of the seas.

Captive octopuses captivate aquarium visitors, who leave wanting to know more about wild octopus populations in our region. Anderson’s census is a start. Divers gather information on numbers and size of the giant Pacific octopus — the largest of at least 150 species of octopus worldwide — at the same sites each year. Anderson says he has little trouble finding volunteers for the task, despite the fact that water temperatures average a frigid 48 degrees in mid-February. “It gives divers a motivation for getting into the water this time of year,” he says. This and other collected data may soon become a useful indicator of the health of both this species and of Puget Sound itself.

Home bodies

Divers are looking for adult specimens. Tiny, pulsing octopus infants live in plankton for about two months to bulk up, sometimes piling on an astonishing 10 percent of their weight a day before heading deeper to seek out a den. This home, where octopuses can often be found in the daytime, can be anything from a sand burrow under a sunken ship to a pile of rocks or other crevice, but is always a place clean-swept by the creature’s funnel, a multi-purpose organ which can be used like a hose to wash out debris. “I like to say that octopuses keep a tidy house and a messy yard,” says Anderson. Divers look for the garbage heap or “midden” up front, piled up to a foot high with crab and clam shells that are ejected after octopus dinners. The den opening itself can be quite small — the only hard part in this animal’s mass of suckers and muscle is a horny beak,
so an octopus can fit its body through very tight spaces. It’s one of the creature’s impressive array of tricks, which includes changing color and even texture for camouflage, squirting ink, and using its funnel for jet propulsion, to escape predators before becoming sushi.

Unfortunately, none of the octopus’ wiles can lengthen its contracted life span, which in the giant Pacific is generally only three or four years long. All the more reason to brave chilly waters for a visit, and maybe a game of tug-of-war.

Maria Dolan is a Seattle-based freelance writer, and author of several guidebooks about the Puget Sound area.