Henry Lee was someone whose diligent research in the 19th century uncovered numerous tales of sea serpents and over-sized creatures of the oceans. He spent some of his time addressing one of the most controversial of all aspects of this phenomenon. Namely, the disturbing issue of people being attacked – maybe even killed – by creatures of the sea. Of this particular issue, Lee said: “I have often been asked whether an octopus of the ordinary size can really be dangerous to bathers. Decidedly, ‘Yes,’ in certain situations. The holding power of its numerous suckers is enormous. It is almost impossible forcibly to detach it from its adhesion to a rock or the flat bottom of a tank; and if a large one happened to fix one or more of its strong, tough arms on the leg of a swimmer whilst the others held firmly to a rock, I doubt if the man could disengage himself under water by mere strength, before being exhausted. Fortunately the octopus can be made to relax its hold by grasping it tightly round the ‘throat’ (if I may so call it), and it may be well that this should be known.”
Lee continued with his position on all of this: “That men are occasionally drowned by these creatures is, unhappily, a fact too well attested. I have elsewhere related several instances of this having occurred. Omitting those, I will give two or three others which have since come under my notice. Sir Grenville Temple, in his ‘Excursions in the Mediterranean Sea,’ tells how a Sardinian captain, whilst bathing at Jerbeh, was seized and drowned by an octopus. When his body was found, his limbs were bound together by the arms of the animal; and this took place in water only four feet deep.”
Lee was not done; indeed, his files were voluminous: “Mr. J. K. Lord’s account of the formidable strength of these creatures in Oregon is confirmed by an incident recorded in the Weekly Oregonian (the principal paper of Oregon) of October 6th, 1877. A few days before that date an Indian woman, whilst bathing, was held beneath the surface by an octopus, and drowned. The body was discovered on the following day in the horrid embrace of the creature. Indians dived down and with their knives severed the arms of the octopus and recovered the corpse.
Lee cited the work of Clemens Laming, the author of a book titled The French in Algiers. In its pages, as Lee learned, was a case that could have resulted in overwhelming tragedy. Thankfully, it didn’t quite get to that point: “The soldiers were in the habit of bathing in the sea every evening, and from time to time several of them disappeared–no one knew how. Bathing was, in consequence, strictly forbidden; in spite of which several men went into the water one evening. Suddenly one of them screamed for help, and when several others rushed to his assistance they found that an octopus had seized him by the leg by four of its arms whilst it clung to the rock with the rest. The soldiers brought the ‘monster’ home with them, and out of revenge they boiled it alive and ate it. This adventure accounted for the disappearance of the other soldiers [italics mine].”
Lee was hardly done: “The Rev. W. Wyatt Gill, who for more than a quarter of a century has resided as a missionary amongst the inhabitants of the Hervey Islands, and with whom I had the pleasure of conversing on this subject when he was in England in 1875, described in the Leisure Hour of April 20th, 1872, another mode of attack by which an octopus might deprive a man of life. A servant of his went diving for ‘poulpes’ (octopods), leaving his son in charge of the canoe. After a short time he rose to the surface, his arms free, but his nostrils and mouth completely covered by a large octopus. If his son had not promptly torn the living plaister from off his face he must have been suffocated – a fate which actually befell some years previously a man who foolishly went diving alone [italics mine].”
“In Appleton’s American Journal of Science and Art, January 31st, 1874,” said Lee, “a correspondent describes an attack by an octopus on a diver who was at work on the wreck of a sunken steamer off the coast of Florida. The man, a powerful Irishman, was helpless in its grasp, and would have been drowned if he had not been quickly brought to the surface; for when dragged on to the raft from which he had descended, he fainted, and his companions were unable to pull the creature from its hold upon him until they had dealt it a sharp blow across its baggy body. A similar incident occurred to the government diver of the colony of Victoria, Australia. Whilst pursuing his avocation in the estuary of the river Moyne he was seized by an octopus. He killed it by striking it with an iron bar, and brought to shore with him a portion of it with the arms more than three feet long.”
There is a lesson to be learned here. Be very careful when you go swimming in our oceans and seas: you may not be aware of what lurks below you, just ready to strike. Perhaps, fatally so.