Skip to content

Fascinating facts you may not know about octopuses in Howe Sound

‘They're way more interesting than they are creepy, once you start to learn about them,’ says Vancouver Aquarium curator.

In the Lower Mainland, octopuses take a back seat to the Instagram marine darlings, whales. There aren't a lot of t-shirts or plush toys that feature their likeness compared to seals and sea lions either. 

Likely, a big part of their lower ranking among locals is that they prefer the deep ocean and to hide away rather than to splash about and make a ruckus like their more popular fellow residents. 

Some folks even find octopuses scary or creepy.

(Fear of octopuses is called chapodiphobia.)

But diver and curator at the Vancouver Aquarium, Danny Kent, thinks they are pretty darn cool. 

“They're way more interesting than they are creepy, once you start to learn about them,” he said. 

Take their blood, for example. 

"Our blood gets its red colour from the iron part of the hemoglobin molecule; they have copper-based blood, so they have more of a greeny-blue coloured blood," he said. 

The most iconic and the main species in Howe Sound is the giant Pacific octopus, he said. 

"For short, GPO is what we all call it," he said. "It's common. It's just not commonly seen."

Kent has seen octopuses many times in Howe Sound.

There are a few other species of cephalopod—which includes squid, octopus, cuttlefish, or nautilus—in Howe Sound. 

Kent said the next most common type is the red octopus, also known as the ruby octopus.

"They don't get very big compared to the giant Pacific octopus," he said. 

He added the smooth-skinned octopus may be very deep in Howe Sound too.

Do they travel?

Kent said in the case of the giant Pacific octopus, when they are babies—as larvae—they're planktonic, which means they free float in the water column.

"They're just sort of controlled by the tides and currents," he said.

As an adult, they will float to the bottom and become bottom-dwellers.

"Once they get to be an adult, and they find a decent den, they probably have ... a home base that they forage out and around and then make their way back to the base," he said.

They can not only move around by crawling, but they can also use jet propulsion, Kent said.

They use their siphon—a funnel-like hole—to blast water out of and push their body in the other direction. 

They also use it to spray their ink out when they are scared or in danger of being preyed on, Kent said.

Other cool characteristics

Octopuses have extremely sensitive skin.

"Basically, like one big tasting organ," Kent said.

They taste, smell and touch everything to see their world, he added.

And they can change colour in the blink of an eye. 

"They can be red one second and white, the next second."

They also have three hearts, which is unique.

Two hearts pump blood to the gills; the third heart circulates blood throughout its body, according to the Aquarium's website.

Octopuses have good eyesight for the type of animal they are, and they are fairly intelligent, though Kent cautioned that their smarts can be overstated. 

"I think people sometimes put them on a bit of a pedestal in terms of their intelligence. But, compared to their closest relatives like a clam, then yes, I would say they're pretty intelligent."

The suckers on the limbs are very strong, Kent noted.

"They can ... rip clams open and rip crabs apart," he said, adding they also have a parrot-like beak.

"The only real hard part on them is a beak," he said. 

"And basically, anything that's big enough to fit the beak through that they can pull their whole body through. So they're really good at that."

How long do they live?

The giant Pacific octopus can live approximately three to five years.

They typically are sexually mature at about three years to four years old.

This is a long time for an octopus, with most other species typically living one year.

Once they have mated, they die, though the female stays around and protects her eggs first.

"She'll sit there and blow water across them and clean them and guard them from anything that can eat them," Kent said, adding this can take months.

"She won't eat the whole time that she's doing that. So she slowly starts to atrophy and getting weaker and weaker .... Sort of her last hurrah is basically when the eggs start hatching."

How can you tell a male from a female?

Kent said the way to tell the difference between a male and a female octopus is if you're looking straight down on top of an octopus head in the direction that its eyes are facing, count three arms to the right.  

The third arm on the right, is specialized in a male, with a hectocotylus. 

"It is basically the thing that passes the sperm packet to the female," Kent said.

How can people help them?

To thrive, octopuses need clean and cold water and food, so anything people can do to protect and improve the ocean will help them.

"As an invertebrate, they're more sensitive to certain chemicals in the water than, say, a vertebrate—something with a backbone. And their skin is so chemical sensitive ... so, they're probably even more sensitive to chemicals," he said, adding that octopuses don't do well when the water gets warm because warmer water holds less oxygen.

Therefore, the warming of the ocean is not a positive for the octopus and other marine life.

"Making sure you're looking after your own backyard and you're looking after the ocean as much as you can," he said. "Anything you can do to prevent climate change, anything you can do to reduce pollution. Supporting any kind of conservation efforts in general that have to do with the ocean would be the indirect way to help an octopus," he said.

As the water the aquarium takes in from the ocean has gotten warmer over time, the aquarium has compensated by putting extra chillers on some of the systems to keep the water cooler, Kent noted.

But that is not so much of a threat to the octopuses in Howe Sound.

"The good thing is that Howe Sound is super deep, so they can probably go deeper where the water is not likely to be as warm," he said.

Find out more about the octopus, and even see one close up, at the Vancouver Aquarium