The captain cutoff the FRV Victoria’s engine and the boat glided to a stop on the choppy Australian waves. About four hundred and seventy knots north east of Melbourne in Jervis Bay was one of the most fascinating discoveries in marine biology in a decade, and after months of preparation, Gabe Livingston and the crew of the Victoria were floating right above it. As long as Gabe had been a marine biologist, this would perhaps to be his favorite expedition. You had to have a healthy appreciation for all marine life to make it as far as Gabe did in his field, but every marine biologist had their soft spot. For Gabe, it was undoubtedly the octopus. And what awaited in those murky depths was an octopus city.
Dubbed Octantis, not to be confused with the residence of Octomom, a team of scientists discovered a whole colony of octopi in late 2017 complete with makeshift shelter made of shells and sand piles. Gabe was there to research the complex social interactions the original team noted the octopi exhibiting. He wouldn’t believe it until he saw it for himself – their findings contradicted most conventional knowledge on octopus behavior, and Gabe couldn’t stop talking about it.
As he jumped into his tight wetsuit, Gabe hopped around the deck following Paul Stevens, the crewmate that was the most likely to humor his child-like enthusiasm. “Can you believe that team actually found the octopus to be socializing?”
“Anchors down?” Paul yelled out to another crewmember who gave him a nod. Today was different. The crew was already running behind schedule, which had Paul’s blood pressure at record high levels – too high to be listening to Gabe’s octopus-laden tangents.
Gabe switched feet to hop into the other leg of his suit. “Previously, we were under the assumption that all cephalopods lived a solitary lifestyle. It was very rare to catch two octopi within five hundred meters of each other, never mind socializing. Socializing,” Gabe chuckled, then cleared his throat. “Well, except for during mating that is.”
“Yeah that’s great. Little busy here,” Paul responded. “Do we have a reading here?”
Another crew member, Ariana Cullington was squinting through her thick round glasses at a screen so much so that she hadn’t picked her head up to admire the bay’s beauty. “Yeah, I see a number of lifeforms just below us. Two are traveling together and one is engaged in a hunting pattern.”
“A hunting pattern?” Gabe gasped. “How neat.” He pulled the wetsuit up over his torso and shoulders, then rolled his shoulders like an acrobat to fit his arms into the sleeves. “Can someone help me with my tank?”
Paul glanced to him, then looked around the ship. “Oxygen?” he called out. Yet another crew member, Sam Keller, came running up the stairs from the bottom deck. He was lugging a heavy tank with both hands. Sam strapped it around Gabe’s back, then tightened the straps.
“You know, they must be pretty comfortable in this environment. Octopi are usually really difficult to find. They’re known for their ability to camouflage like a chameleon and quickly design makeshift shelter to ward off predators. You said multiple readings? They must not need to hide too often.”
“Stronger in numbers I guess,” Sam said as he pulled the last strap as tight as he could.
“Why do you indulge him, Sam?” Ariana whined. “You know he’s just going to ramble even more.”
Sam ignored her. He shot to his feet and patted Gabe’s shoulders. “Alright. You ready to make history? No pressure.”
Gabe nodded. “Born ready.” Gabe flapped over to the back of the boat, stuck his snorkel in his mouth, dangled his feet over the edge, then slid off the back of the boat into the cold ocean water. The freezing temperatures rushed over this body, but he quickly adapted. All he could hear was his own breathing and the muted sounds of the Victoria chopping against the water when his head dropped below the surface. When Gabe went diving, he was in his happy place: its why he did what he did.
Gabe turned over on his stomach and flapped the fins on his feet to propel toward the bottom. The area wasn’t too deep – the octopus he was studying tended to live in coral reefs which were typically in shallow water. In this case they had built a city of their own, but it was nonetheless shallow.
Within a minute, Gabe was grazing the ocean floor. The sunlight shimmered through the water and spread toward the bottom. It didn’t quite make it to the ocean floor, so Gabe turned on his flashlight to search for the eight-tentacled creature. In no time at all, he spotted something moving. If he didn’t know what he was looking for, he wouldn’t have seen them, but a couple of octopi about ten meters to his right sat facing each other. They were rubbing their tentacles on one another, flexing and relaxing different parts of their bodies in a sort of dance. Gabe nearly lost his snorkel when he saw them. Octopi don’t have a conventional brain like mammals do: they technically have nine brains, equally spread amongst their tentacles with neurons firing throughout the appendages. So in short, they were communicating. They are social.
Gabe floated above them, shell-shocked. One could read as many studies as one wanted, but it was a whole different experience to see it happen. One of the octopi contorted its body so its eyes sat higher on its head – it noticed Gabe. But these, unlike all octopi previously observed, weren’t at all afraid of Gabe. They didn’t dart away and pull a shell over their heads, they just…stared. They squinted and warped their heads, tensing various muscles in their boneless bodies to get a better look at their unexpected visitor. They then released each other, repurposing their tentacles for swimming – swimming toward Gabe. They’re curious creatures that love learning. If there was to be a change in their environment, they needed to inspect it to determine its role in their lives: a predator, prey, or a friend. One of the octopi darted off the sea floor, gently placing a couple of its tentacles on Gabe’s chest, walking up toward his face. Gabe couldn’t contain his smile. He felt like the luckiest man alive in that moment. He didn’t even have to warm up to the creature – it immediately approached him. Most marine biologists studying octopi would have to wait weeks of tireless and careful work to gain an octopus’s trust. Gabe thought this was perhaps due to the fact these octopi were more comfortable socializing than most. Stronger in numbers, as Sam said. Gabe could feel the suctioned grabbing of the octopus’s tentacles using his wet suit like a ladder. Then it stopped, comfortably positioned on Gabe’s chest. It reformed its body again to bend its head in a way that it could look Gabe in the eye. Gabe didn’t know how to feel about this – it was as if these creatures gained something by studying his eyes – like it was reading him. It squinted again, the fluid mantle of its head bouncing against the light waves.
Gabe smiled and squinted back, swaying his head along with the creature, hoping to make it comfortable with a little familiar mimicry. The octopus widened its eyes, then seemed to relax after assessing Gabe, but it didn’t leave his chest. Gabe couldn’t see the sea floor past the octopus’s body, but he felt more suctioning on the legs of his wetsuit – it was the other octopus wrapping its tentacles around his ankles, at first quite gently. Then the one sitting on his chest began to feel his equipment. It rubbed its tentacles on his snorkel, then followed the tubing back to the oxygen tank. It squinted again for a moment, appearing to appreciate whatever information it was gathering. The octopus made its way over the roads of tubing hooked up to Gabe to touch his second stage regulator, his pressure inflator, and his alternate air-source.
Gabe didn’t know octopus to be a hostile animal, but if he didn’t know better he would have thought it was devising a plan. It seemed to be wracking its brains, learning every inch of Gabe’s suit and figuring out what connected to what. And while Gabe was busy focusing on this octopus, the one below was tightening its grip on his ankles. He tried to lightly kick his flippers to tread in place, but combatted a great deal of resistance. He tried again: no movement. In fact, the harder Gabe kicked, the harder the octopus seemed to squeeze. They want me to stay, Gabe thought. He had plenty of air in his oxygen tank, but he was beginning to panic. While he adored the creature, he of course couldn’t stay forever. But this tentacled duo seemed to have other ideas.
Then, the octopus on his chest leaned back and extending its body outward. It finally looked away from Gabe’s eyes, but only to further examine his equipment. It then wrapped a tentacle around the tubing connected to his snorkel and…pulled. Gabe couldn’t believe it: it yanked the snorkel right out of his lips. Gabe frantically reached up to catch the floating snorkel and shove it back into his mouth. His heart began to palpitate. He looked up toward the surface to see the Victoria floating not too far away, but it was still helplessly out of reach. Gabe squirmed and kicked and the lower octopus grabbed tighter and tighter. His feet were beginning to go numb – he had no idea a mollusk could be so strong. And whenever he stopped kicking, the octopus pulled him closer to the ground, repositioning to gain better leverage over him. Gabe shrieked for help, but it amounted to nothing more than a few bubbles rising around his cheeks.
The octopus on his chest slowly wrapped its arm around Gabe’s snorkel again. He shook his head, as if it could understand his desperate pleading. And maybe it did – the octopus seemed to collect some type of sick satisfaction out of Gabe’s struggles. It was toying with him. It tugged on the snorkel again. This time, Gabe bit down on the snorkel’s rubber lining and jerked his head backward. He reached up with an arm to stop the octopus and hold onto his snorkel. The octopus calmly countered by ominously wrapping one of its free tentacles around the tube running to the oxygen tank. Gabe thrashed. The octopi squeezed harder. He managed to break its grip on his snorkel for a moment, but when he put it back in, he noticed he wasn’t sucking air anymore: he was swallowing water. He twisted his head away from the octopus to see a disconnected tube floating away toward the surface. Gabe swiveled his head back toward the octopus, which now wrapped its tentacles around his body and squeezed tighter and tighter.
“He’s been down there a while,” Sam said, peering over the side of the Victoria into the abyss. “He should be back by now.”
“Would you relax,” Paul said, puffing on his cigarette. “He’ll be up eventually. At least for now we get some peace and –” Paul’s jaw dropped open and the cigarette fell out of his mouth and simmered atop the waves. It was one of Gabe’s tubes, floating to the surface. “Ariana,” he called up with an uncharacteristically shaking voice. “Do you see Gabe on the monitor?”
Ariana put her phone down and sat upright in the chair. She looked at the monitor, first haphazardly, then leaning in closer. There was nothing on that flat ocean surface. No sign of Gabe. No sign of the octopi. No signs of life. Then, up came a small pool of blood, which formed around the tube and soon dissipated amongst the calming evening waves.