Watching Our Water Ways

Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Update on shark-versus-octopus battle

August 12th, 2008 by cdunagan

Last week’s “Amusing Monday” entry was indeed shot at the Seattle Aquarium — and there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

The announcer in the video doesn’t say where the scene was shot, so I put out a request for information. Thanks go to Susan Berta of Orca Network for putting me in touch with folks at Seattle Aquarium, which ultimately led to an interview with biologist and lead diver Jeff Christiansen, who was involved in shooting the video.


Photo courtesy of Seattle Aquarium

Before 1987, the dome exhibit often included three octopuses — the number required to almost guarantee that people would see one, Christiansen told me. The octopuses would hang out in a recessed area under the lower windows inside the tank, he said. That was before the rocky reefs were installed.

Also in the tank were a number of dogfish sharks, another native of the Puget Sound region. But not all the dogfish survived.

“If you were lucky enough, you could see it happen,” he said. “They would wait for fish to swim by, then you’d see the arms flash out and a bit of a struggle. Whatever the octopus didn’t eat was chucked out.”

Frequently, aquarium workers would arrive in the morning to see the remains right in front of the viewing windows. The middle of the dogfish carcasses were completely eaten down to the bones, but the head and tail were intact.

“It was considered bad to have dead animals sitting down there in the tank when you opened up (the exhibit) in the morning,” Christiansen said.

Divers, who normally went into the tanks in the afternoon, had to put on their gear and make a special trip into the tank, he said. Today, divers are in the tank several times a day.

Although the sharks were easy to replace, especially in those days, aquarium managers were worried about losing rare and valuable fish, he said. In fact, once an octopus was able to eat a sizable salmon before the decision was made to take the octopus out.

Anyway, about 10 years ago, Mike DuGruy of National Geographic Films was doing a feature on octopuses when he heard the story about the shark-eating creatures.

“He came to us and asked if we could recreate the situation,” Christiansen said. “Being the film-whores we are, we said ‘sure.’”

The details of the recreation are somewhat proprietary, Christiansen said. But that’s how the dramatic battle of the shark and the octopus came to be a National Geographic story.

Today, with the recent remodel of the aquarium, octopuses have their own space. With divers in the tanks several times a day, they could feed the octopuses enough so the animals wouldn’t go after fish, Christiansen said. Still no decisions have been made to put octopuses back in the big tank.

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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