As quirky as the Pacific Northwest is, the World Octopus Wrestling Championships held in Tacoma in the mid-1960s qualify as one this region's most unusual events.
As quirky as the Pacific Northwest is, the World Octopus Wrestling Championships held in Tacoma in the mid-1960s qualify as one of this region’s most unusual events.
In one of the contests, a reported 5,000 people watched 111 divers going into the waters off Titlow Beach near the Tacoma Narrows.
The contestants dived 30 to 50 feet to grab giant Pacific octopuses out of a cave or wherever they were making a home.
The wrestling part came in loosening the octopus as it gripped the cave with its arms and suction cups.
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It was a contest won by the divers.
“They have good suction, but if you get their arms, and pull, the suction cups go pop, pop, pop. They don’t have a lot of holding strength,” remembers Gary Keffler, 75, one of the organizers.
Although no longer diving, Keffler is well-known in the local diving community. He ran Underwater Sports until 15 years ago, and then turned it over to his sons.
Keffler competed in, and won, world spearfishing-diving championships. He was a stunt double for Lloyd Bridges, who played scuba diver Mike Nelson from 1958 to 1961 in the TV series “Sea Hunt.”
For the series, Keffler would be filmed off the San Juan Islands doing stunts such as wrestling with an octopus.
“You roll around, staging that you’re fighting him,” remembers Keffler. “They’re not very aggressive.”
Keffler belonged to a diving club called the Puget Sound Mudsharks. They’d hold spearfishing and other competitions with other diving clubs.
“We decided to do something a little different,” says Keffler about the octopus wrestling.
Keffler says he knew that the giant Pacific octopuses liked to hang around Titlow Beach because the fast water brought in plenty of shellfish for them to eat.
But just to make sure that first contest wasn’t a bust, he remembers the club caught and brought in five or six octopuses and planted them at the beach.
It was needless worry. “We ended up with about 20 octopuses.”
When brought up, the octopuses were weighed, and each team of three divers got two points per pound if they were free diving (no mask) and one point per pound if they wore scuba gear.
Keffler says the octopuses were kept in aquariums set up on the beach, with most released back into the water, and some given to the Seattle Aquarium. If transported quickly in portable aquariums, the octopuses were unharmed, says Keffler.
Keffler remembers winning the octopus-wrestling contests all the years that they were held, his team bringing up octopuses that ranged from 10 to 60 pounds.
He says the competitions were only held “three or four years … then we moved on to other things.”
The July 1963 issue of Skin Diving magazine profiled that year’s championships.
It called the event “a whale of a success!”
Says Keffler, “It caused a lot of interest. People never realized these octopuses were the largest in the world.”
And, he says, he remembers people at the beach gawking at the octopuses in the aquariums.
“They always hear these awful stories about them, killers of the deep,” he says. “The ones we have here are pretty laid back.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org