Giant Octopus Revealed

According to local legend, the largest octopus in the world lives below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Dive deep into one of Puget Sound’s most beloved mysteries.

In 2013, locals voted on the 11 Wonders of Tacoma through an online survey released by the city. Staples like Museum of Glass, Union Station, and Stadium High School were obvious picks. Historic landmarks like beautiful Wright Park and Tacoma’s “living museum” Fort Nisqually also made the cut. But the 10th Wonder was perhaps the most obscure. It was indeed an unofficial city icon, but one most locals have never seen: the giant octopus under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. For generations, Tacomans have been telling the story. Some say it’s a 600-pound creature, once coined King Octopus by the The News Tribune, that tackles divers in the murky waters beneath the bridge. Others know it to be a scientific phenomenon, seeking nothing more than solitude on its ocean throne.

Is the myth a blurry interpretation of fact? The Giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus species in the world, and it does live in the Puget Sound. Divers often see big ones that rest in the rapid tides below the Narrows. A giant Pacific octopus can live only three to five years, so how could one survive the decades it’s been whispered about? Is it just a mythical creature that’s been lurking in the imaginations of believers? Depends on whom you ask.

Regardless of whether King Octopus is alive or exists only in the sea of our minds, its legend lives on in Tacoma lore. The fascination with the animal serves as a great connector for the community. The King is rooted in Tacoma history and often poses as a muse for city artists. And the real giant Pacific octopus is a vibrant, mysterious creature marine biologists long to better understand.

“As Secure as the Narrows Bridge”

Photo courtesy Harbor History Museum

Photo courtesy Harbor History Museum

On the stormy morning of Nov. 7, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge rippled above the Puget Sound’s white-capped water. Leonard Coatsworth, an editor at the The News Tribune, was attempting to drive his car across the swaying bridge when it tilted so violently that he lost control. The bridge, which had been only open four months, was moments away from collapsing.

The bridge was a $6 million piece of industrial science that the city took pride in. At the time, it was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world and quickly became an area landmark — one now known for its shaky history. “Galloping Gertie,” the locals called it, because it would bounce when winds as low as 5 mph funneled through it. During its construction, workmen chewed lemons to help combat motion sickness. The bridge’s engineers were aware it had faults, and they were attempting to make fixes.

Coatsworth got out of his car, crawled to the Tacoma end of the bridge, and like any good newsman called his office from the bridge’s toll plaza phone. The News Tribune dispatched rookie photographer Howard Clifford and reporter Bert Brintnall. En route to the scene, the journalists passed a Pacific National Bank billboard:

“As secure as the Narrows Bridge.”

About an hour later, a 600-foot-long section of bridge roadway sank about 200 feet into the Sound. Coatsworth’s car was engulfed by the tide. His daughter’s three-legged cocker spaniel, Tubby, who was trapped inside, never made it out. When Clifford and Brintnall were returning to the newspaper, they again passed the Pacific National Bank billboard. This time, it was covered up in white paper, like a mounted white flag.

The bridge collapse created an artificial reef for many sea creatures. Today, clusters of seastars grip onto the concrete surfaces of the old road, while schools of fish pass by, unaware they’re visiting a sunken piece of what once was considered a Tacoma triumph.

Some people imagine that the King Octopus is tangled in the collapse of that bridge, too, its enormous tentacles wrapped around the faulty planks that led to the bridge’s demise: a den carved out of human failure, and swallowed by the sea.

The myth grows with each generation, likely started by the broken-hearted folks who witnessed it fall. In one windy morning, the bridge went from a monument of innovation to an empty space, a symbol of failure that continues to cling to the city’s reputation today.

Galloping Gertie’s flawed engineering is still studied by physics students across the country. A picture of its collapse is printed on a plaque explaining aerodynamics underneath California’s Golden Gate Bridge. Decades later, Clark Eldridge, the bridge’s lead project engineer, wrote in his unpublished memoir: “I go over the (new) Tacoma Bridge frequently, and always with an ache in my heart. It was my bridge.”

The Mind of a Monster

The giant Pacific octopus is as peculiar as it is beautiful. In the water, its velvety thin skin ripples with the waves of the current. Its billowing stomach travels over its eyes like an enormous brain. It looks like a creepy and eerie spider of the deep, but one that’s as graceful as an eight-legged ballerina dancing weightless underwater.

“There’s not a creature more unlikely on this Earth it seems, and yet here’s somebody who can look you in the eye and recognize you,” said Sy Montgomery, author of the recent book The Soul of an Octopus, which explores the animal’s consciousness.

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A giant Pacific octopus can remember a person’s face and the taste of its skin. “Because every one of their suction cups is covered in taste receptors they can actually recognize someone without actually looking at them,” said aquarist Matt Wilson of Marine Science and Technology (MaST) Center Aquarium in Des Moines, Washington.

When they do look at a human’s face, they see about the same thing a person does when he looks at his reflection in the mirror. “Their eyes are very, very well-developed. As far as depth and visual acuity, they’re the same as a human,” said Wilson. “They can’t see the same coloring, but they actually have a slightly wider field of view.”

The giant Pacific octopus may be drastically different from people physically, but their intelligence is remarkably similar. For example, they like to solve problems and ponder puzzles. When they’re concentrating, they’ll often change colors, “in a way a person would scratch their head, or scrunch up their eyebrows,” said Montgomery. And, like a restless teenager, they’ll get themselves into trouble when they have too much time on their hands.

“These fish kept disappearing from this tank,” said Annie Crawley, an expert diver who worked at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “A couple (tanks) down lived a giant Pacific octopus. At night when everybody would go home, this octopus would undo its latch, open it, crawl over and go into the tank, eat the fish and crawl back.” By morning, there were no tracks or obvious clues of its murderous escapade. According to Crawley, when the aquarists cracked the case, they had to change the locks. At some aquariums there are octopus-enrichment handbooks for caretakers to help keep the animals intellectually stimulated so their curiosity doesn’t tempt their rebellious side.

But while the giant Pacific octopus does have the capacity to think similarly to a person, their actual brains aren’t comparable. That’s partly because, in a way, they have nine of them.

“We split from their ancestors half a billion years ago, and our intelligence evolved for a different reason and along a different path,” said Montgomery. “Our brain looks nothing like an octopus brain. An octopus brain is a circle that fits around their throat, and three-fifths of their neurons are in their arms.”

The octopus’ striking intelligence fascinates the humans who study them. For Wilson, who spends up to six months taking care of the temporary resident octopuses at MaST, each one has its own charm and charisma.

Photo courtesy “Giant Pacific Octopus Sticks to the Glass” ©2013 Michael Bentley, used under a creative commons attribution license.

Photo courtesy “Giant Pacific Octopus Sticks to the Glass” ©2013 Michael Bentley, used under a creative commons attribution license.

“Every single octopus has a different personality. Every single one will have a different temperament and style all their own. It’s really fascinating. They’re the smartest invertebrate on the planet, and they all have their different quirks and things,” he said.

Some octopuses learn to play with Wilson and even trust him. They become two odd companions, unable to live in each other’s worlds, but bonded by an unrelenting curiosity for each other.

Montgomery instantly felt connected to the first octopus she got to know. “They are so cognizant; you can feel it,” she said.

But their stark physical differences also can repel people. Octopuses are slimy, and cold. They have no facial expressions. Their bumpy skin and row of suction cups are unlike any human trait.

“They have venom and ink; they have tongues that are covered with teeth; they have beaks like parrots. A single sucker on a Giant Pacific can lift 30 pounds. They have three hearts; they have blue blood. I could go on and on,” said Montgomery.

For years giant Pacific octopuses have been a source of inspiration for cartoons, and horror movies. In Western culture, they’ve often been seen as a “devil fish” lurking in what people can’t seem to grasp — a web of contradicting qualities: eerie and beautiful, opposite in body, and yet so similar in thought. It’s an intimidating list of characteristics for an animal people can bond with, but still have trouble relating to.

“They have all these powers that so exceed our own and which are mysterious to us,” said Montgomery. “And so what we do is we make them monsters and we make them gods. This is what humans do with those who have powers we don’t understand.”

A Ghost Frozen in Time

Matt Wilson. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Matt Wilson. Photo by Rachel Coward.

Cities are often remembered by their landmarks and monuments. The Statue of Liberty poses in New York. A bronze Paul Revere is anchored in Boston. Washington, D.C. is peppered with statues of the nation’s most impactful leaders, each one a capsule of an impactful life, frozen in time for generations to remember it by.

Tacoma is about to get a new sculpture too — an octopus that may be 100 feet long. California Bay area artists Sean Orlando and David Shulman are creating the public art piece for Sound Transit that will reign at the corner of Pacific Avenue and South Tacoma Way. They’ve named it “Gertie’s Ghost.”

“It was kind of a no-brainer,” said Orlando. “I love when coming up with projects, to tap into some of the urban myths and legends that exist within a city.”

In the sculpture’s design, eight tentacles are shaped to look like they are emerging from the ground. “Gertie’s Ghost” will ensure that the mystery of an over-the-top octopus under the bridge lives on.

“I believe [in it] absolutely,” said Orlando. “It’s nice to think that there are monsters out there … I think we relate and imagine mythical creatures all the time, and it’s nice to think that there might be some kind of magic and myth out there that’s based on reality.”

Before the sculpture is completed (the artists hope to have it done in 2016), the octopus, both exaggerated like a fictional character and proportionate like the real animal, can be seen all over the South Sound. Just look and you’ll see octopuses painted onto the sides of buildings, stickered on car bumpers, carried on key chains, and worn on T-shirts.

At the new Whole Foods at Chambers Bay, just a few miles from the Narrows Bridge, a giant illustration of an octopus climbing out of the water onto the Narrows is on a wall above the store’s fancy cheeses. David Hulbert, regional marketing manager for Whole Foods, who grew up in Tacoma, said they wanted the store and the octopus to reflect something about the area. Their illustration is a nod both to the King Octopus legend and the actual animals that live under the bridge. So far, it’s been a huge success. Their octopus-themed merchandise has set a record for sales.

“It was the most sweatshirts we’ve ever sold at a store opening, and they have the octopus kind of on the back of them. The customers love them,” said Hulbert. “There’s something about that octopus that people really like.”

Hulbert thinks it’s because it’s a Northwest animal that’s graphically appealing. He’s right; but for some it’s more than that. There’s something about it that people long to keep frozen in time.

Divers See it Differently

Local divers know the octopus too well to entertain any old myth about there being a monstrous one.

“People have been telling that story for 40 years, but octopuses live only three to five years so that’s an unlikely one,” MaST’s Wilson said of the King.

Legendary diver Gary Keffler and his son, Terry who co-owns the scuba diving company Underwater Sports, think it’s an old fishermen’s tale brewed by folks who never actually dive underwater.

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Sunrise Beach, Gig Harbor. Photo courtesy Harbor History Museum

Others believe there are monsters, but living on land.

“The monster is us,” said diver Annie Crawley, commenting about how much trash humans put into public waters. “The myths we create about all of these creatures living under the sea, whether it’s sharks or octopuses, it’s people’s fears that we put upon the animal’s life … No one wants to know that the myths don’t exist … It gives us something bigger to believe in sometimes, you know?”

But what a diver can experience with an octopus under the water may be more magical and oddly mysterious than any made-up story. On a warm summer day in Des Moines, a line stretches out of MaST as a shy teen girl anchored at the door nervously turns visitors away.

It’s graduation day — one of the aquarium’s biggest events of the year — and the space inside is already at capacity.

“The monster is us. The myths we create about creatures living under the sea, whether it’s sharks or octopuses … it’s people’s fears.” —Annie Crawley, diver

Behind the entrance, a red octopus made out of fondant is frosted onto a sheet cake, wearing a black graduation cap and holding a diploma.

Today, Melanie is graduating.

Melanie is a female giant Pacific octopus that has been living in the aquarium for six months awaiting her release back into the wild. She’s curled up at the bottom of a white bucket. It’s not labeled or marked. Most visitors don’t realize it’s holding an octopus until aquarists slowly lower the bucket off the pier with a rope, and into the water where an underwater photographer and Rus Higley, manager of MaST, are waiting for the perfect graduation shot.

As the two men dive down to the rocky sea floor with the bucket, a swarm of people huddles around a TV screen inside the aquarium where the release is being broadcasted live. Slowly Higley opens the bucket’s lid, and tries to gently push Melanie out. She resists, like a preschooler scared to leave a parent on the first day of school.

Higley has been in this position before. Sometimes, the graduating octopus flutters away. Other times, it wraps its tentacles around his hand, and takes a few moments.

Like any graduation ceremony, this experience is surreal, and a bit emotional. There’s a kinship there, undeniable to any onlooker. And then, she lets go.

It’s magical, mysterious, and indeed real.

The Myth Lives On

Locals have been feeding the myth of King Octopus for years, keeping it alive with a longing to explore the unknown. And while the King holds its place in Tacoma lore, the giant Pacific octopus as a species is perhaps more mysterious than the mythical creature of imaginations. Scientists are making new discoveries about its capabilities all the time. There’s still so much they don’t understand. And yet it lives right here in the South Sound. It’s swimming below the surface of the water when you walk along the local beaches, and it’s studying your face when you visit it at the aquarium. It’s an often-misunderstood creature home to the waters surrounding Tacoma, a city that knows all too well what it’s like to live in the shadows, underestimated by those who don’t dare to to explore its depth.  

octopus_icons2Eight “Facts” about the Giant Pacific Octopus: True or False?

Octopuses are carnivores.
True. Most of the time they feed on shrimp, clams, and fish, but if they’re really hungry they’ll go after their own kind.

Octopuses can change color.
True. Not only color, but octopuses have the ability to change texture to blend in with coral, plants, and rocks. But experts say they are also colorblind. So, how do they know what color to change to? No one really knows.

Octopuses have three hearts, a complex brain, and blue blood.
True. Two of its hearts pump blood, and the third circulates it. They have one central brain, but the majority of their neurons are in each of their arms. If they lose an arm, they can grow another one. Unlike a human, their blood is copper-based, instead of iron-based — therefore the blue hue.

Octopuses form families for life.
False. Giant Pacific octopuses mate once in their lifetime then die shortly afterward. A female will lay up to 100,000 eggs in her den, and wait for the eggs to hatch for about six months — she won’t even take a break to eat. While her babies are hatching, the mother is often dying — turning a white hue as she says hello, and goodbye.

Octopuses form friendships.
False. Octopuses prefer solidarity. They often view their own kind as competition.

Octopuses hunt at night.
True. Octopuses hunt at night. They use their saliva to paralyze their prey.

An octopus is made of muscle.
True. They’re 90 percent muscle. The only hard thing in their body is their beak, which is much like a parrot’s. They can fit their entire bodies through any hole slightly wider than their roughly 2-inch beak.

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest in the world.
True. They can reach 24 feet across and weigh up to 160 pounds. According to divers, a large one for this area is about 60 pounds.

World Octopus Wrestling Championships in Tacoma

Tacoma made national news in the early 1960s for an unconventional new sport: octopus wrestling. Every April at Titlow Beach, which is nestled just south of Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a gunshot would be fired, signaling divers to dash into the icy water in search of their eight-legged competitor. Once they spotted a creature, typically hiding in its den, they’d pluck it out of its home and carry it up onto the beach. Skin divers without breathing devices who discovered the largest octopuses were awarded the most points. They’d find some that weighed up to 58 pounds.

Champions were awarded a trophy, and the octopuses would either be released back into the ocean, or given to aquariums. Octopus wrestling grew into a sensation over the years. The press fell head-over-heels for the unorthodox Northwest sport. Skin Diver magazine called it “A whale of success,” and even TIME magazine made mention of it.

But there were flaws to the game. Come to find out, octopuses aren’t great wrestlers. They’re gentle creatures that would rather burrow alone in the Sound than make a grand debut in front of cheering crowds. Instead of a dramatic match between competitors, the event was more of a treasure hunt for the divers.

Tacoma stopped holding octopus wrestling championships by the ’70s. People lost interest and the culture around protecting marine wildlife started to change. By 1976, a new state law proclaimed it illegal to “molest or harass food fish or shellfish without the intent of taking them for human consumption.” Gary Keffler, the man who started the championships, said it was always meant to be a way to get people interested in diving, and not to harm the animals.

The press never quite got over the hype of the competition. When the 1976 law came out, The News Tribune ran the headline: “Forfeit? King Octopus keeps crown.”

The Bridge’s Insurance Scam

The first Narrows Bridge was insured by Merchants’ Fire Assurance, but its insurance agent, a Seattle man named Hallett R. French, was so certain the bridge would never collapse that he pocketed its policy’s $8,000 premium. He was on vacation in Idaho when he got the news Galloping Gertie was in pieces. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released after two years for good behavior.

Where to visit an octopus

You can visit the giant Pacific octopus at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma or at MaST, the Marine Science and Technology Center next to Salty’s on Redondo Beach Drive. MaST is free to the public on Saturdays.

Octopuses vs Octopi

The plural form of octopus is octopuses. Octopus is a Greek word that’s been a part of the English language for centuries and should be pluralized in the English manner. If you make a pie with an octopus-shaped lattice, that’s an octo-pie.

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is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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