The Dismemberment of an Eight-Legged Giant

Our Alaskan ocean, with its cold year-round temperatures and high oxygen content, is home to some of the largest creatures in the world. One enormous mollusk happens to be as intelligent as she is large, and she's all the more intriguing for her eight arms, hundreds of suction cups, and quaint hobby of collecting shiny objects: the giant Pacific octopus.

These clever invertebrates average 16 feet in length and 110 pounds, but the record-holder was measured at 30 feet and 600 pounds! They also live longer than other octopuses, but don't expect much. They last around four years, with both males and females dying shortly after breeding.

Naturalist Kim points out an octopus den at China Poot Bay.

Octopuses live in dens that are submerged at all but the lowest tides. As a bonus, they prefer dens with two holes: both front and back doors.We were lucky to find this den at low tide. When Kim tickled the entrance with her finger, a red tentacle swooped out to investigate.

When searching for octopus dens, keep your eyes out for the midden, a trash pile of helmet-crab exoskeletons and snail shells discarded by the octopus.

Live octopuses are cool and all, but this blog is about a dismemberment, so let's get to the point!

On June 4th, a dead giant Pacific octopus washed up on Otter Rock.

The limp form of a freshly-dead octopus.

When the tide went out, I descended the rocky shore to investigate.

The octopus was smothered by another of our ocean's giants: sunflower stars! I knew these monstrous, soft-bodied stars to be predators of other sea stars, but I knew nothing of their fondness for octopus meat.

My hand for scale. The tentacles was thicker around than my arm, and the sunflower star could have covered my entire face and wrapped around to the back of my head. (I had no intentions of letting it.)

The octopus was stone-dead, but her sucker still held my finger tight was I pressed on it.

This squishy sunflower star was waiting for the tide to come back in so he could move freely over his meal.

My favorite shot. I love the juxtaposition of tube feet and suction cups: the echinodermatan and molluscan solutions for the tasks of moving around and holding on. 

Here's a video of the tube feet in action!

Three days later, the octopus had disappeared from the low intertidal zone and reappeared high-and-dry upon Otter Rock. The pair of bald eagles were spotted dragging and pecking it. The octopus's carbon was redistributed first to deep waters, then to the crown of a spruce tree, and who knows where else.

Each day I asked one of my visitors to be an octopus model -- for scale and, of course, the cute factor.

June 7th: "There it is, but I'm not touching it!"

June 8th: "There it is! Can I touch it?"

On June 8th, it smelled like bacteria were joining the food chain.

The suction cups, however, were still intact.

June 12th: my octopus models were unwilling to get any closer than this. I thought they were still brave, considering the stench and general goopiness.

June 12th was the last day our dear dead octopus was seen. Whether she got dragged into the woods by a bear or deep under the sea by a seal, or was chewed into goo by microbes during the next few tide cycles, we'll never know.

In theory, I knew that elements are recycled and dead things make up the living. But after watching the swift dismemberment of an octopus into the vibrant life of the intertidal zone I admire daily, I feel included in a secret.

On June 25th, I watched one of the three bald eagle chicks flap his wings for the first time.

Now, when I spy on our bald eagle chicks through my binoculars, I think of the octopus midden. In the chicks' emerging flight feathers, I see helmet crabs that became octopus that became eagle.