Releasing Oliver

Submitted by Jamie Woodward, Highline College

Jamie, decked out in dive gear

Jamie, decked out in dive gear

Every year, the Marine Science and Technology (MaST) Center of Highline College both captures and releases two Giant Pacific Octopus. Each is displayed in our aquarium for approximately 6 months before being returned to the Puget Sound. This event is filmed, recorded and displayed on projectors in our aquarium so visitors may see what’s happening beneath the water’s surface. This October we released a male, who exceeded 6 feet in length, arm to arm. I was honored to be the one to lower him down to 50 feet and open the container to set him free. This of course required that I be dive-certified, and familiar with handling octopus. However, even with those qualifications, Oliver’s release proved to be more complicated than any of us imagined.

I opened the bucket lid, and we expected Oliver to break free almost immediately – as he was known for his rambunctious and courageous behavior. However, he remained still, in the back of the container. I began coaxing him out with no luck until finally one tentacle emerged. I quickly moved my hand forward so he could sense it, in another attempt to persuade him out. As soon as I made contact, Oliver lunged, and just as quickly as I realized he was moving, all eight of his arms were wrapping up my one, reaching towards my shoulder. I briefly lost my cool and began to spin in circles, attempting to get him off my arm, but rapidly learned the more I struggled the more he gripped. So, I conceded to his persistence and descended to the ocean floor calmly to wait him out. And there Oliver remained, attached to my arm for the better part of 10 minutes, searching my hand for food.

Through my thick dive gloves I could feel the pressure of his beak searching each of my fingers, finally moving on to my dive light. I’m not sure if it was the heat from the light, or my dive partner that arrived with a crab to entice Oliver away, but he finally retreated, possibly deciding that crab was easier prey. I went on this dive thinking I would be releasing an octopus, not imagining that he would also be releasing me!

After awhile of Oliver ferociously pouncing on every crab in sight, we began to coax him along to an empty den that we knew would be safe for him. Like a toddler, I gently held one of his arms and directed him to his new home. Upon sensing the den, he quickly lunged in and started getting comfortable. With that, we ended our program and said goodbye to Oliver.

Oliver, the Giant Pacific Octopus

Oliver, the Giant Pacific Octopus

After a month, Oliver remains in the same den where we released him and continues to interact with divers who visit. This experience opened my eyes to the true strength and possible danger associated with handling this animal, especially in its own territory. This experience is surely one I will never forget, and always associate with my time spent at the MaST Center as an AmeriCorps service member.