At forty feet the reef ends, and a long, sandy talus slope falls away into the gray-blue lagoon. I spin slowly, searching the reef for Black Lip oysters. A big cave penetrates two massive dead coral heads and I glide over to peer into its darkness. Slowly, I edge into the cave, searching the walls for stylaster corals or sclerosponges.
We have a friend in Australia who works on sponges. Sclerosponges are the newest taxonomic rage in her field. They look like yellow-orange golf-balls stuck on the roof of the cave. Once thought to be rock formations by geologists, SCUBA diving scientists harvested live ones from a coral reef cave, making somewhat of a mini sensation in the small circle of people interested in such things.
I click one off the cave wall and back out into the open. Warning bells are ringing in my ears. CO2 Alert.
Time to get back to the surface. I kick up and put my mind on hold while the surface rushes towards me. I can see Moira's bottom and her anchor chain as I look up. A canoe is alongside. I surface next to the canoe and take a deep breath. Two old, black, sea weathered faces look down at me.
I remove the snorkel from my mouth and say, "Hi."
They say nothing, so I flipper to the stern ladder, hand my gear and the small sclerosponge to Freddy, climb aboard and dry off. Meanwhile Walter plops down into the big old sailing canoe and is inspecting the old fishermen and their catch.
"Nice boat," I smile and admire the pandanus sail and the intricate hibiscus bark knots holding the outrigger to the hollowed out tree trunk. "But it looks as old as you guys."
These guys are really old. They are also not very happy looking. Maybe because Walter has decided to boost one of their fish. He shakes his tail and worries away at a colorful parrot fish damn near as big as he is. And Dr. Walter is big.
One of the men reaches for Walter. This is a mistake. Before I can say anything, Walter explains, in his own, special way, why it is not a good idea for a stranger to touch the Furry Monster. Freddy and I are most uncharitable about this, and burst out laughing. What a sight. Walter's fur stands up all over and his tail is enormous. His ears are flat back on his head, his teeth and claws bared, and he hisses and growls at the man who is now as far as he can get in the bows. Walter snaps a glare down to the overhanging stern where the second man is almost in the water.
"Walter, get your ass up here NOW!" I use my best "or I'll cut your balls off" voice. Watching his foes carefully, he uncoils all the way from the bilge of the dug-out straight up about 2 meters to clear Moira's gunnel. Freddy and I are proud of him. What style. He relaxes (except for the bushy thrashing tail) and ambles off to perch on the cabin top and watch.
"Big fellow pusscat." Says the man in the bow of the canoe as he comes back to the sailing platform.
"Big fellow cat, him jungle cat not pusscat. Belong witch doctor long Solomons come protect this boat from devil devil," I explain sociably. The two men look at Walter with round eyes and nod their heads. This makes sense to them. They have never seen an island cat as big or as nasty as Walter.
Freddy and I wait for the old men to start the bargaining. Clearly, they must want something or they would not have stopped. I put on a shirt and sit down. They sit down. Freddy sits down. Silence falls over the little anchorage. I smile at them expectantly, they smile at me. Walter licks his paw, impressive claws fully extended, eyes closed.
Finally I say, "You fishing here?"
"No," they both say together. Then the one with the big bushy gray beard looks around the cove and points to the far side, "Fish there. Here Taboo."
Oh, maybe they think I'm fishing in their taboo place. Maybe this reef belongs to the Catholic Mission or someone else."Why taboo?"
"Maybe you dive in water catch fish here you die." The old man rumbles through his beard.
"Devil devil?" I ask.
"No," they chorus together. "Not devil devil. No got word. Big. Very big. You swim here, eat you."
"Some big.... Shark?"
"No. Not shark."
What could be, not a spirit being, not a shark, able to eat a diver? The old man makes weird, undulating motions with his braceleted arms. "Eel? Big Moray Eel eat man?" They don't know the words.
Freddy hands me a pencil and a piece of paper. Why didn't I think of that? I draw an eel on it and show it to them. They shake their head and reach for the pencil and paper. Carefully, sitting together, they draw something and hand it back. It is a picture of an octopus. An octopus? Tropical octopus are usually small. A really big one might have a tentacle spread of 2 meters, each tentacle being about 4 centimeters thick at the base. They are very curious beasts, but also extremely shy as the island people love to eat them - not the other way around.
But these two old men are perfectly serious. I think about the cave I was just in. I circle the head of the octopus on the drawing and hold up my hands, "How big head?" my hands indicate a sphere about the size of a football. This would be a big octopus. The men look at each other and then hold up their arms to indicate a head larger than they are.
"Woaaaa! You guys are having me on." I laugh. They look offended.
"True. Head big like this. Very big." He stands up and points to the drawing, indicating the tentacles. "Big like this," He holds his hands to indicate a tentacle thickness bigger than a man's thigh.
This said, the two guys promptly shove off, haul up their sail and continue on their way. They did not ask for booze or tobacco or anything at all. Just came to warn us. Very unusual.
Giant octopus are the stuff of fiction. At least in the tropics. The old adventure stories about the hard hat diver captured by the giant octopus is only slightly less ridiculous than the fair maiden trapped by the man eating giant clam.
But I wonder. We heard a similar story in the Solomons - about a giant octopus. Octopus are incredible beasts. They grow fast, changing what they eat into themselves at a conversion ratio greater than any other known animal; about 45% of what they eat becomes flesh. In juvenile people, and most other animals, the percentage is about 10%.
Unlike any other beast, octopus grow faster as they get bigger. At the end of a year, tropical octopus stop growing and start producing sex products. The male and female couple. He dies. The female lays her eggs in a cave and stays to fan them with her siphon until they hatch. She does not eat and dies shortly after the young hatch out.
A gland near the eye triggers the breeding cycle. Suppose, once and awhile, something prevents the gland from functioning. A defective gland, perhaps. Would the octopus keep growing, getting bigger and bigger, until it became a terribly hungry giant beast capable of munching up divers? Could it have happened here? Maybe when the two old men were boys? Could there still be a giant octopus down there?
I have a healthy respect for octopus. One nearly drowned me when I was a teenager diving for lobsters in the Florida Keys. I remember it all too clearly. I reached under the ledge thinking "Heeeers Dinner!" and grabbed it right by the head. One tentacle snaked out and wound up my arm all the way to my shoulder. Then another arm snaked up to my elbow and a third arm wrapped around my wrist and forearm.
What I remember best was how strong it was. The islanders universally admire the octopus' style and in some areas families have adopted the octopus as their totem. Soft but Strong is the image.
I pulled and pulled but quickly discovered three octopus arms around my arm meant five octopus arms around the coral inside the ledge. So I relaxed. This is an old trick. Relax and the predator will take the opportunity to shift its grip to get a better purchase. At the split second the predator relaxes you quickly escape. I relaxed and relaxed but the octopus merely tightened its grip. They are smart little bastards. I turned blue looking up at the surface only 3 meters away. I began to get dizzy. The octopus held on as if it had all day. Which it did. Desperate, I swung my feet under me and heaved towards the surface with all my might. In a moment of panic I broke the entire ledge away from the bottom. Mr. Octopus went one way and I went rocketing the other.
Recently an octopus drowned a boy in the Gilbert Islands. They have a puberty rite there. To be manly, a boy must bare-hand a big octopus from the floor of the lagoon. Octopus can and do kill people, providing the people are dumb enough to grab the octopus first. Maybe, if an octopus was big enough, hungry enough...
"So, did you see any giant octopus lurking down there?" Freddy laughs.
"No, but it's not very interesting down there, either. Lets up anchor and go somewhere else."