Diving in Search of an Octopus off Vancouver Island

Diver looks at an anemone on a rock in cold Pacific waters. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Dive long enough, and you’ll encounter an octopus, whether it’s in the tropics or the chilly waters off Canada’s Vancouver Island. Well, the rest of you will. But I was beginning to wonder about me.

All my friends had their favorite octopus story. But no matter how many scuba dives I made in the Caribbean, in the Pacific and especially, in the chilly waters off North America’s west coast, I couldn’t find even one.

Octos, after all, are masters of disguise. They can change not only the color but the texture of their skin.

They are, by the way, correctly called “octopodes,” not “octopi” or even “octopuses” because the root word is Greek. But most divers simply call them octos. They are invertebrates, specifically mollusks like snails and oysters. But they are way smarter.

In Your Bucket Because….

  • You’ve seen that Jules Verne movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and wouldn’t mind meeting the giant squid’s cousin in person.
  • You don’t mind really cold water and currents.
  • Good for: experienced scuba divers who want to see one of the greatest dive areas on earth.

Hang around divers and marine aquarium people for a while and you start hearing stories.

“Back in the ’70s, we’d put herring in a jar and toss the jar in the octopus tank and then watch as the octopus unscrewed the lid,” said octopus specialist Jim Cosgrove of Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Rob Innes, a marine naturalist, remembers the disappearing crabs at Victoria’s Undersea Gardens where he worked some years ago.

Octos Are Amazingly Clever

“The tanks had sides that stuck up eight inches out of the water but this one octopus was going right over the top and into the crab tank to eat the crabs. We caught him in the act.”

People compare octopus intelligence to that of a dog and wonder how much smarter they might be if they lived longer than three to five years.

What most people see in northern US and Canadian waters is either the giant Pacific octopus or the red octopus. It’s not rare to see the giants with 10 foot arm spreads and the largest on record was documented in Victoria in 1967 at 155 pounds and a bit over 23 feet.

Giant Pacific octopus in waters off British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Nautilus Explorer

“If you are going to touch an octopus,” said Rob, “be aware they are covered on the top by a mucous membrane that protects them against infection and can be rubbed off. So touch them only on the underside where the suckers are because that’s the part of them they touch the outside world with.”

But, of course, the touching may not entirely be your idea.

Nautilus Explorer company owner Mike Lever remembers helping film a TV show in 1993. An octopus suddenly plastered itself across the face of one of the divers from the Vancouver Aquarium. “It began sucking off his regulator. The diver thought it was good fun and had his spare regulator ready to go. This thing pulled the regulator right out of his mouth. It was great footage and the funny thing is the clip has made it into many TV shows — “Worlds Wildest and Most Dangerous Animals” on Fox, that sort of thing. They always play it as a life threatening episode which, of course, it wasn’t.”

Back on my dive aboard one of Lever’s boats, I was still missing the octos. I missed the ten foot critter who wrapped two tentacles around one diver while wrapping another tentacle around a second diver. I even missed the baby that clung to someone’s hand for five minutes.

No, cold water divers don’t dive in a herd. Experienced and independent minded, they tend to wander off by twos and surface at the appropriate time.

The Boat Mission

By now, the entire dive boat had made it a mission to find me an octopus.

We were 60 feet below the surface when a diver showed up, motioning frantically. A few feet away, deep in a vertical crack was a large — no, huge — octopus. The suckers on its arms were the size of plums.

I turned to give an okay sign and, so the others tell me, the octopus put out one of his arms and grabbed the top of my head. I never felt it because I was wearing a thick dive hood.

Well, it wasn’t the world’s most spectacular encounter but it was all mine. And I’ve got a video clip to prove it.


  • This is real cold water diving with water temperatures averaging in the low 40s. A dry suit is virtually a necessity. And since using a dry suit is a bit different from diving in a wetsuit, taking a course on drysuit diving is recommended.
  • The Canadian trips are aboard the Nautilus Explorer company’s newest liveaboard, the Nautilus Swell.



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