In a sense, it all started with Scrabby J in 2009.
We were on a night dive in Cay Sal Bank in the Bahamas. Four of us happened upon an octopus that seemed as curious about us as we were about it. We settled calmly on the sandy bottom of the reef we were exploring, and let the octopus approach us.
At one point, my friend gently placed her hand a few inches forward in the sand, an interspecies offering of sorts. The octopus soon made a quick, tentative touch on her hand with just the tip of one of its arms, and immediately pulled back away. Apparently assured of safety by this first contact, it then returned to my friend and explored her hand and forearm with greater interest.
Octopuses generally hunt at night, and this one could have left us any time it wanted to in order to seek a meal. Instead, it remained with us for a full 45 minutes, regaling us with outrageous displays and funky dances, seemingly just because it could. It’s so easy to anthropomorphize the octopus, and yet there’s no other good explanation for why this octopus chose to hang out with us and interact with us for all that time. No other explanation than that it just wanted to.
I said it remained with us for 45 minutes, implying that eventually it left us. That’s not quite true. We stayed with it for 45 minutes, leaving only because we were all getting low on air. Seemingly this sublime experience could have gone on for far longer.
We came up from the dive absolutely ecstatic. The sky was inky black, but graced with countless stars. This feeling of being so tiny in the universe, so miniscule in the sea, so dependent on oxygen tanks, and a boat, and each other….and yet so supremely happy to share in a story we’d tell to loved ones over and over in the coming years, without ever really doing the experience full justice.
We chose to name the octopus by combining fragments of our first names. Though I’d been diving for ten years at that point, and though I’d just started to toy with bringing a camera down with me on dives, I was still new to moments of feeling entirely comfortable and at home underwater.
Scrabby J, and the photo my friend, Craig, took of this encounter, served as my first inkling to get more serious about this whole underwater photography thing. The irony, then and now, is that most of my very best underwater encounters have come on dives when I’ve chosen to leave my camera behind, and just be.
It can be tempting to lament the handful of incredible photos I’ve “missed” by virtue of diving without a camera on occasion. Instead, though, what resonates for me is that I’ve gotten to have direct interspecies interactions that continue to confound me, even when I know they actually happened.
And I have my dive buddies and Scrabby J to thank for it.
banner photo by Craig Rudnick