Tentacles of Strange Red Octopus Stretch Far and Wide
The requests keep coming.
An editor with Science Live in New York emails to ask for an interview. A producer for Russia Today sends a message seeking permission to publish photos. A staff writer with the SyFy Network calls to ask for the same.
Who knew that a strange red gelatinous sea creature washing up on the western shores of Whidbey Island five weeks ago would create such a stir? Well, it turns out, it’s not every day that a seven-armed octopus, or Haliphron atlanticus, is seen in this part of the world. Based on photographic evidence only, that’s what scientists from university and research centers across the country believe was found at low tide at Ebey’s Landing just after sunrise on August 29.
The deceased marine animal, roughly 3.5 feet long, was lying in the intertidal zone for a few hours before the tide came in and took it back out to sea. Ron Newberry, our communications manager, snapped a few pictures of the mysterious sea creature and shared them on the Whidbey Camano Land Trust’s Instagram and Facebook social pages, setting off a wave of speculation as to its identity.
Was it an East Pacific red octopus, as was first suggested? Or a vampire squid? Or a dumbo octopus? All would be unusual discoveries in Puget Sound waters. As first told in an article by the Whidbey News-Times, scientists from across the country began looking at the photos and sharing them with more experts, including the Smithsonian Institution. Ultimately, most agreed that the cephalopod appeared to be a seven-armed octopus, one of the largest octopus species in the world (joining the giant Pacific octopus, a Salish Sea resident). Seven-armed octopus are normally found in the deep sea far away from inland waters of the Pacific Northwest.
“This is really interesting because I do not know of any records of this species from the Puget Sound area or from Washington state at all,” Dr. Kirt Onthank, associate professor at Walla Walla University, told the News-Times. Onthank knows these waters well. He studies the relationship between octopus and ocean acidification at the Rosaria Beach Marine Lab in Anacortes.
Dr. Elaina Jorgensen of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the News-Times that she had seen photos of Haliphron atlanticus found off the coast of British Columbia in the past and wondered if this one might’ve been blown into Puget Sound during a windstorm and died from the lower salinity waters.
“I was surprised that it was found in Puget Sound, which is pretty far north for that species,” Dr. Michael Vecchione of the Smithsonian Institution wrote in an email to the News-Times. “However, shifting distributions are not unusual in the world lately.”
The story of the possible seven-armed octopus discovery has since spanned the globe. It has appeared in dozens of articles on at least four continents. You can read about it in the Globe and Mail in England, Science Times, MSN, even the website, The Mother of All Nerds.
“The mysterious creature caused a stir in America,” read a headline from Xa Luan, a news organization in Vietnam.
The chances of such a discovery happening again any time soon are rather remote, said Robert Kiel, engineer with the Seattle Aquarium. Kiel initially thought the creature was a vampire squid, then believed it might be a dumbo octopus, both deep sea dwellers.
Kiel said it could be another 100 years before an octopus like this washes up at Ebey’s Landing again.
“Any time you go out in nature, 90 percent of the time you see what you expect to see, but if you keep your eyes open and your ears peeled, you see other stuff and discover things,” Kiel said. “I don’t care what ocean you’re in. The transition zone between the ocean and land is one of the most interesting places on the planet.”