REMINISCENCES | On kissing a live octopus underwater

REMINISCENCES | On kissing a live octopus underwater


In 1985, I was scuba diving In Kona, Hawaii with retired US Navy Commander Jerry Saber and his brother Rick Saber, a United Airlines pilot, when we heard about this dive master and his trained animals and decided to dive with him and watch him in action. Another six scuba divers joined us. I was especially keen to watch the dive master handle the moray eel, for there is a scuba dive shop owner on the Kona coast of the island of Hawaii that provides a unique diving experience to customers. One of their diving instructors, a dive master, is both an animal trainer as well as being a diving instructor.

This dive master has a special talent as he has successfully trained a small moray eel and an equally small octopus, each about a foot long, to come out of their holes and let him fondle and pet them. He uses what looked like cheese squirted out of a pressurized tube to coax them out of their holes in the reef and let him fondle and pet them. He does this while scuba diving and if he was with other scuba divers, the eel and the octopus allowed themselves to be passed from scuba diver to scuba diver to be petted.

In once had a foot-long moray eel bite the end of one of my index fingers when I waved my hand too close to it while I was snorkelling off Waikiki beach in Honolulu in 1954.

“A good rule of thumb is to steer clear of any moray eels you encounter unless you have bribed them to be your pet.”

Moray eels are extremely well equipped to be a predator with their fang-like teeth and a jaw that can open wide to both bite and engulf their prey. Big moray eels can inflict very serious harm when they bite. Here is an example of what they did to a man I knew well. One day in the 1960s, the then director of the Hawaii State Division of Fish and Game, Vernon Brock, was diving at Johnston Island southwest of Hawaii to obtain moray eels to test for the presence of ciguatera, a poison that many reef fish have in their flesh. Eating a fish that has ciguatera in its flesh or organs can result is extreme sickness and even death.

Anyway, Vernon Brock had speared a very large moray eel, one estimate was that it was four or five feet long. The eel did not like being speared so it attacked him aiming for his head. Vernon threw up his arm to protect his head and the eel took a savage bite out of his arm, so bad that he had to be medically evacuated by air to Hawaii for treatment. Fortunately, he did not lose his arm. A good rule of thumb is to steer clear of any moray eels you encounter unless you have bribed them to be your pet.

Getting back to this story, I don’t know how the dive master managed to teach these two creatures to be held but I was able to experience this up close. The scuba divers, including the dive master, arranged ourselves in a circle with everybody sitting down with their legs extending outward. The water was shallow, so our heads were only two or three feet below the water’s surface.

“That was a pretty dumb thing to do.”

The dive master first enticed the little eel to come of its hole and onto his hands to get some cheese.  The dive master then fondled and petted the little eel for five or ten seconds before passing it to the nearest scuba diver who would fondle it for a few seconds and then passed on to the next scuba diver and so on around the circle of divers. After the dive master had retrieved his eel, he gently eased it back into its hole.

He then coaxed the little octopus out of its hole by offering it the cheese. I recall the octopus was also about a foot long. After stroking it for five or ten seconds he passed the octopus to the diver next to him, who fondled it for a few seconds and then passed it to the next diver and so on.

When it got to me, I thought I would do something different. I decided to give it a kiss. It is interesting to note that the device that is in your mouth when diving is called an octopus. It leads to a hose that provides air from the tank strapped to your back.  With the octopus mouthpiece removed from my mouth, my lips were exposed just below my face mask. I eased the head of the octopus towards my lips for a kiss. I was able to get the octopus almost to my lips when it decided it did not like my friendly gesture by spreading its arms, grabbed my face mask and ripped it off my face.

At this point I gave the octopus to the next diver, put my face mask back and blew the water out of the mask so I could see. I then looked across the circle of divers and whilst I cannot say I saw them laughing at my silliness behind their masks, I knew they were as my navy friend Jerry Saber told me he was laughing.

When our small animal diving excursion was over, the instructor turned to me and said “That was a pretty dumb thing to do. Please don’t ever do that again!”

The above article is an excerpt from Swimming with Fishes, Dr Bob Iversen’s memoir detailing his experiences as a fishery biologist. It is reposted here on Baird Maritime with the author’s permission.

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Bob Iversen

Bob Iversen is a retired Hawaii fishery biologist who spent 40 years studying tuna and other fish in the tropical Pacific Ocean. He is a former officer in the US Navy, and initiated the “mental health of seafarers” movement that has now taken off worldwide.