A Maple Valley diver said he didn't know it would upset people when he hunted an octopus at Cove 2 in West Seattle.

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Dylan Mayer says it was his idea for a community-college art project that sent him on the octopus hunt that’s sparked a furor.

Mayer, 19, said he had no idea the popular dive site at Cove 2 in West Seattle at Alki was informally regarded as a park, or that people would be upset when he hunted a giant Pacific octopus on Wednesday. But he quickly found out.

Dive instructor Bob Bailey, of Federal Way, confronted him on the beach that day, and then posted pictures online of Mayer with the octopus heaved in the back of his pickup. The story went viral, lighting up divers’ blogs and generating hundreds of emails.

Mayer had a valid shellfish permit for the hunt, which was legal. But critics said it shouldn’t be — at least at that location.

Others grieved that giant Pacific octopus — the largest octopus species in the world, and widely renowned by nature lovers and divers — are hunted at all.

At the family’s home in Maple Valley, Mayer’s mother, Denise Mayer, has taken to answering the phone “Octo-Mom” in an effort to maintain a sense of humor in a situation that quickly became anything but funny, with critics commenting online that they wished someone would tie weights around her son and sink him.

“They value the life of an octopus and they are threatening a family,” Denise Mayer said. “They put his life below that of an octopus. It’s gone way overboard.”

A state game warden investigated the hunt and determined the animal, a male octopus weighing about 80 pounds, had been legally hunted. But the controversy continued to feed on itself.

Critics circulated screen grabs of photos from Mayer’s personal Facebook page showing him kicking a porcupine, and other actions with animals that stoked the controversy. It didn’t help that as Mayer surfaced in the water, he was seen punching the octopus — one of the most beloved animals in Puget Sound.

Octopus must be hunted by hand, as state law forbids using any instrument that could pierce the animal’s skin. And Mayer said he had no choice but to punch the octopus because it had wrapped its tentacles around his mask, nose and mouth and he couldn’t breathe.

“You are just wrestling with it,” he said of the octopus. “It wraps around you, and you try to get it to shore before you drown.”

Mayer is a student at Green River Community College, he said, but is planning to transfer to Bellevue Community College. He said he’s been diving in the cove before, and deliberately selected an octopus that was not one of the regulars he sees.

“This one was extremely aggressive, it was not friendly,” Mayer said.

“It did not like people and that led me to believe it was a newer one in the area, and not one of the regulars, which I let alone,” he said.

He said he wanted to capture it and take it home, “to draw it for this art project, and eat it for meat.”

He got the idea for the project after students in his art class were asked to draw something from nature. “I thought, ‘How about something underwater?’ “

Rick Stratton, of Oak Harbor, publisher and owner of Northwest Dive News, said he has started an online petition to make Cove 2 a state Marine Protected Area because it is time for the controversy to take a positive turn, toward protecting the cove.

“He’s new and he’s young, and it’s not an official park,” he said of Mayer. “It gives the community a black eye to hammer this kid.”

The petition is one of two posted online, one of which has already garnered more than 1,000 signatures. The state Fish and Wildlife Commission would make any decision about creating a new marine-protected area.

Mayer said he hunts octopus maybe once or twice a year, though it is legal to hunt and kill one every day.

He says he loves the meat and has eaten or given to friends and neighbors most of the octopus he hunted Wednesday. The rest is in the family’s freezer.

He said he didn’t know the waters were informally regarded as a park among divers who use it.

“I do feel sorry,” Mayer said. “If I would have known that these people were that protective over it, I wouldn’t have done it.”

At the same time, he said, “there is no sign, and I see people fishing there. How could I know this is not morally acceptable?

“If people feel this strongly about it they obviously need to voice it and a sign needs to go up and make it a park. But I don’t think all of Puget Sound should be off-limits. That is like saying you like deer so there should be no hunting, or you like cows, so there should be no meat.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @lyndavmapes

Staff researcher Gene Balk provided assistance with this story.