A 1972 Robalo sportfishing boat pulled up to an oil platform off the coast of Corpus Christi.
As the waves rose and fell around this giant manmade structure, Capt. Bill Sheka lowered a big hunk of cut bait seeking out snapper, grouper and other sport fish common to the area.
Suddenly he felt tension on the line, so he set the hook.
Something was on the other end, but it was not moving.
“There were some deck hands on the rail of the rig, and they were watching me,” Sheka said. “When I got it up, it turned out to be a gallon glass mayonnaise jar, obviously pitched overboard by the rig’s cook.”
The men on the rig laughed at the strange catch and fired off some snide remarks.
“Got some bread for that mayonnaise?”
“Nice catch bud!”
But the jar was not empty.
“Inside was an octopus that had taken my bait and scurried back to his ‘home’ in the jar,” Sheka said.
“I took my small, wooden billy club and hit the jar breaking it to reveal the wiggling, twisting octopus. Now the crew was silent, and I then asked them if they knew any octopus recipes,” Sheka said.
He had a good laugh at his naysayers before releasing the creature alive and well.
Octopuses in the Gulf?
The Flower Gardens Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) is the most observed and studied habitat in the Gulf. According to FGBNMS research coordinator Emma Hickerson, at least four octopus species exist there.
These include the Caribbean two-spotted octopus, common octopus, white-spotted octopus and mimic octopus.
“I filmed a Caribbean two-spotted octopus quite a few years ago out and about, scooting around the reef during the day, but otherwise typically they are tucked away in the reef,” she said. “You can sometimes find their ‘middens’ which are piles of shells from their meals. One particular octopus I filmed was big enough to be feasting on large queen conch and slipper lobster at Stetson Bank.”
Kristi Oden encountered and caught one while diving from an oil platform off the Gulf Coast.
“It was a feisty thing,” she said.
“It kept grabbing my dive knife and pulling on it. I got it into my dive bag and took it back up to the boat because I wanted to look at it,” she said. “It was really neat. When I got it out of the bag, it changed colors to match the floor of the boat. I looked at it for a little while and then put him back in the water.”
Most encounters with octopuses off the Texas coast are around oil rigs and at the FGBNMS, but some divers have reported seeing them at the jetties in Port O’Connor, Aransas Pass and Port Mansfield.
Finding octopuses along the beach jetties and even in the bays is a fairly common occurrence on the Gulf Coast of Florida, but in the western Gulf they remain mysterious.
The common octopus can grow to impressive size with specimens as large as 4.3 feet and weighing upwards of 20 pounds. Although it is difficult to measure the intelligence of animals, octopuses are, without question, brainiacs of the marine world.
Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. They also have an impressive number of neurons, which are the measuring stick science uses for thinking potential.
The common octopus has around 130 million neurons. A human has more than 100 billion, but that number is not bad for something that makes its living in the cracks and crevices of reefs, rigs, jetties and yes, even mayonnaise jars.
The more we understand about the Gulf of Mexico, the more we can appreciate it.
I can’t imagine someone not being able to appreciate how unique the octopus is and the fact Gulf coastal waters are home to these amazing creatures.
Kingdom Zoo, in conjunction with Chester Moore’s “The Wildlife Journalist” project, will be hosting a very special summer-long children’s conservation outreach project.
“Wild Gulf” will see the Kingdom Zoo team making treks from the Florida Panhandle to Port Isabel to document by photo and video the unique species of the Gulf of Mexico.
texas fish & game is a key sponsor of the project and will feature several stories on the project’s biggest outreaches.
“The Gulf of Mexico and its species do not get enough attention in the national and world spotlight,” said Kingdom Zoo’s Lauren Williams.
“We are going to do our best to change that and at the same time let kids in our ‘Wild Wishes’ program take part in these adventures.”
“Wild Wishes” grants exotic animal encounters for children who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent our sibling.
—story by Chester Moore