Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right up front. The octopus is a solitary mollusk, so much so that there is no collective noun to describe a group of them. That means when a headline refers to a “horde” of them, it can’t be a good thing. Also, despite the fact that they have eight legs, they can’t use them to stride across the ground, so a story that says they “walked” out of the ocean is probably just using this as an opening to soften the news that Armageddon has arrived. Has it?
“They were coming out of the water and crawling up the beach. We don’t quite know what’s causing it. Perhaps it’s because the sea has been quite rough recently but I’ve never seen anything like it before. They were walking on the tips of their legs.”
Wales Online got that eye-of-the-octopus-witness report from Brett Jones, owner of the SeaMôr Dolphin Watching Boat Trips boating company in New Quay, Ceredigion, who saw the octopuses when he returned to his dock at 10 pm on October 27. While he didn’t give a count, a friend of his estimated at least 20 on the beach the night before. This is the first time these lifelong coastal residents can recall seeing octopuses on the beach and quickly worked to return the live ones to the water. However, they had no idea why they crawled/walked/tiptoed out in the first place.
These were curled or horned octopuses (Eledone cirrhosa) that can reach 50 cm (20 inches) in length and get their descriptive name because they generally keep their tentacle tips in a tight curled position. Their population has increased, particularly in the North Sea, surprisingly because of fishing. While the curled octopus is tossed away as by-catch, they’re attracted to the area because of the abundance of crabs and lobsters used as bait for fishing industry.
So, despite losing a few friends to fishing, life seems to be good off the coast of Wales for the curled octopuses. Why then are they trying to escape the sea in such large numbers? One theory is that hurricane Ophelia, a recent weather bomb (fast-acting low pressure system) named Brian and other low pressure depressions have had a negative effect on the waters below and the soft mollusks living there.
Another theory is that the octopuses are looking for a place to reproduce – this seems unlikely because it’s never been seen before and they normally like to ‘do it’ at depths of 100 meters (330 feet). Then there’s the abundance of lights bright lights on the popular quay – could the be disorienting to the octopuses? Or is it a case of population control due to overcrowding?
If curled octopuses had them, they would probably be participating in this finger-pointing between the fishing industry, the tourism industry and environmentalists. Whatever the reason, the fact that this phenomenon is so rare has many wishing for Mr. Spock and his Vulcan mind meld.