National Geographic : 1991 Mar
my mask, I pulled at the beast's arm. It finally came free but still dislodged the mask, which immediately filled with water. After I cleared my mask, I real ized what the creature wanted. Two of its arms were wrapped around my camera's bright orange strobe light, which had aroused its curiosity. For five minutes I pulled away its arms one after another until I at last freed the camera. In his 1866 novel, Les Tra vailleursde la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea), Victor Hugo recounted a grueling fight to the death between a man and an octopus. "What can be more horrible than to be clasped by those viscous thongs which adhere closely to the body by virtue of their many sharp points?" Hugo wrote. "But the wound of these points is as noth ing to that of the sucker discs. The points are the beast enter ing into your flesh. The discs are you, entering into the flesh of the monster." The hero prevailed, and the novel made the octopus the talk of Paris. Newspapers debated the dangers of this "devil fish." Restaurants featured octopus entrees. Milliners created an octopus hat for ladies to show off at seaside resorts. Hugo set the standard by which the octo pus would be described for nearly a century, but his descrip tions were mostly fantasy. Octo pus suckers, for example, have no sharp points, although the creature has a sharp parrot-like beak and on occasion has bitten humans when provoked. No one knows exactly how big the giant octopus gets. Mature males average about 23 kilograms (50 pounds), females about 15 kilograms (33 pounds). Arm spans average 2.5 meters (about eight feet). One octopus found off western Canada in 1957 was estimated to weigh 272 kilograms (nearly 600 pounds) and have an arm span of 9.6 meters (just over 31 feet), setting a widely acknowledged world record for the Pacific giant, which inhabits an area from California northward along the coast to Alaska and off eastern Asia as far south as Japan. A New Hampshire resident, FRED BAVENDAM photographed peat bogs and manatees for his first two NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC articles. Narrow straitsbetween Vancou ver Island and the mainland harboran array of marine life. Overfishingfor octopuses, favored as bait, led to a ban on their harvestingin Discovery Passage.Mike Richmond, operatorof a scuba dive charter who once fished octopuses for a living (below), now campaigns to create a permanent marine sanctuary there.