Workers claimed to have seen it during the reconstruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Divers brave enough to take an up-close look also share stories of a giant creature looming and lurking around the old collapsed bridge. Legends and myths tend to start with something small and grow more exaggerated as time goes on, but in the case of the giant octopus that makes its home under the bridge, there’s a very good chance this legend is at least partially true.
“The myth goes that the world’s biggest octopus lives under the bridge, and it’s true we might have the biggest ever, but it’s replaced all the time,” said Rachel Easton. Easton is the education director of Harbor WildWatch—a marine and environmental education organization dedicated to inspiring stewardship for Puget Sound. Easton is referring to the Giant Pacific Octopus of which many make their homes in the sound with the crumbled bridge being prime habitat for the cave-dwelling creature. While not big enough to come on shore and swallow entire buildings, the Giant Pacific Octopus is the largest such octopus in the world with the largest recorded being some 30-feet across and nearly 600 pounds! The reason Easton says the world’s largest is replaced frequently is due to the short lifespan of octopuses, typically three to five years.
According to Easton, the Giant Pacific Octopus creates its home in crevasses and caves usually found on the sea floor. When the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed in 1940, the rubble that fell into the water created all kinds of shelter perfect for these octopuses. A typical adult is somewhere around 16 feet long, but due to its body structure, can squeeze into unbelievably small spaces. Even more fascinating is how quickly they grow. “The female typically dies shortly after laying thousands of eggs in her den. Each start out as the size of a pea, and only a few make it due to predation and other factors,” explained Easton. “There is no metamorphosis that takes place as they have all the parts they need from birth; they simply start getting bigger very quickly.”
Despite their closest relatives being clams, abalones and snails (animals that are not intelligent), the Giant Pacific Octopus is actually quite intelligent, due in part to its short lifespan. “They will interact with divers, can solve toddler problems like putting a shaped block through the matching hole or unscrewing jars,” said Easton. “When catching food they camouflage by changing their color, shape and texture to blend in with the habitat they are in.”
There are two ways to see these giants: Get in the water and search, or visit one of the greater Seattle-area aquariums, all of which have them on display. Those living in aquariums are typically smaller, about 6-feet long, and once they outgrow their environment are released back into the sound. As creatures of habit, once they’ve built their den, the octopus tends to stay nearby so local dive shops can point you to an area where you are likely to encounter them. While they have the power to wrap up and immobilize a human diver, these are not aggressive creatures and are more likely to swim away than to get into a fight with a diver.
If you choose the diving route and you haven’t been down below our waters before, you will find an amazing variety of wildlife in and around the collapsed bridge. “There is a ton down there: kelp that can reach 100-feet high, rockfish, sharks, ratfish, seals, sea lions; and even river otters will come down from their homes to fish in the kelp forests,” said Easton. “Many varieties of sea stars, snails and crabs [are] the octopuses’ favorite food, [and] if you see crab shells in a pile, an octopus den is usually nearby.”
There is also a very common relative of the Giant Pacific Octopus—the Pacific Red. These look nearly identical but have three distinct eyelash features which allows you to tell them apart. The Pacific Reds are about the size of your hand and live only about a year. “They are found in negative tide pools, and this past spring and summer places like Sunrise Beach were full of them,” said Easton. These also change color and are easier to spot without having to dive into the depths for a look.
The world’s largest octopus could definitely be lurking under the bridge, but it won’t be swallowing ships or swimmers as the legends go. Tacoma has embraced the legend, and it’s fun to know that it’s not a completely made-up tale and, in fact, there could very well be truth to it. If you’re interested in learning more about these fascinating creatures or the other fish, animals and invertebrates that make this area home, the Harbor WildWatch offers programs, interactions and talks throughout the year on everything that’s going on under the surface. So the next time you drive over the bridge remember, the world’s biggest octopus might very well be right under you, and that’s no myth.