Researching a place before you arrive can save your life. Although my story happened over five years ago, it still brings me huge embarrassment given how well reported this marine animal is, especially in Australia.*
Allow me to set the scene: I am at Manly beach, just down the coast from Sydney Harbour. The white ferries are rhythmically depositing passengers every thirty minutes. The sea is full of kayakers bobbing like oranges, and threatening to capsize in the wake of each ferry. There are around ten boats moored offshore, protecting swimmers from sharks, although on closer inspection the shark nets are way below the surface level. Around the corner, a path clinging to the cliff takes you to a rocky cove, where many swimmers splash around with tropical fish, or attempt to surf further out.
I looked for shells as my boyfriend sat reading further up the beach. I knew it was against the law to remove shells or any kind of wildlife, so it was merely a game to find the shells. I wanted to discover those large ragged conicals where you can hear the echo of the ocean, decorated in tiger prints and dusky indigo hues, or perhaps the perfect white fan-shaped shell with no cracks. I found a variety of smaller shells on the shore line where the tide had been hours before, but these were easy pickings. The real treasures – the iconic twisted shells which could house hermit crabs – were being rocked in the surf, providing only the briefest glimpse before rolling away in the white water.
I had seen my prize. Timing my attack, I waited to see it once more before plunging my hand into the sand. Missed. Trying to work out where the wave had snatched it, I walked ankle deep along the breaking waves. There. I positioned myself again and dived my arm into the sand once more. As I lifted my arm, allowing the water to wash the sediment from the shell, I noticed a leg curling around from the other side. It was brown, slender and thicker at the base, with tiny ridges along the edges. Rotating the shell, I saw that it was an octopus.
The octopus, with a head the size of a large grape, slipped into my hand and I dropped the shell. I called to my boyfriend but he was too far away to hear me. I kneeled down and dipped my cupped hands in the water so that the octopus didn’t dry out in the dry midday heat. It had comfortably slotted its tentacles in the creases of my folded hands, and an electric blue colour was emerging in rings across its skin. The azure pattern continued until it was covered.
After holding it for a couple of minutes, mesmerised by its striking colours, my boyfriend wandered over to see what I was holding. Running back for his camera, he took a quick photograph before I released the octopus back into the sea.
It was a week later when a friend from home told me that what I’d held was highly toxic and extremely dangerous. The distinctive blue/black rings, or maculae, of the blue-ringed octopus become visible and pulsate when it feels threatened. It’s venom is 10,000 times more toxic than cyanide, and the poison tetrodotoxin (also found in puffer fish and cone snails) can cause paralysis and death. Although they rarely grow more than 20cm, a blue-ringed octopus can kill a human within ten minutes by injecting poison through its beak. There is no antivenin for a bite, and treatment involves artificial respiration when the respiratory muscles become paralysed, usually after a couple of minutes. There have been two reported deaths in Australian records, largely due to better education to avoid going near the animals, and quick responses to bites with mechanised respiration to ensure that patients survive.
Still in the Sydney area, just over a week later I heard of a local news report warning of the increasing number of blue-ringed octopi, after an adult was lucky to survive a bite on the same beach.
*I am by no means advocating going near or touching a blue-ringed octopus – they are deadly and I was incredibly stupid to hold one. Instead, I hope this story will raise awareness so that the next beach goer doesn’t repeat my mistake. If you’re still not convinced, just watch the Bond film Octopussy, or the following video: http://youtu.be/9trGnkHzxqo.
‘Science in Pictures: The blue-ringed octopus’ by Matthew Oldfield, The Epoch Times, http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/science/science-in-pics-blue-ringed-octopus-59857.html
‘Death by Octopus’ by Ursula Smith, Museum Victoria, http://museumvictoria.com.au/about/mv-blog/nov-2011/death-by-octopus/
‘Blue-ringed Octopus Numbers Increasing’ by unknown author, The Telegraph, January 30, 2008, http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/blue-ringed-octopus-numbers-increasing/story-e6frfkp9-1111115429692