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Is there really a giant octopus under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?

Douglass Brown was 15 when he saw a giant tentacle emerge from Puget Sound.

He was in Tacoma, walking down the beach with a girl he liked. Then he looked out at the water.

“I see this arm come out of the water. It was 10, 15 feet in the air,” Brown says. “It looked like an octopus or something like that, and I just took off running.”

Was it a trick of imagination, or should Douglass have been afraid? His mom, Renee Brathwaite, asked Local Wonder to investigate.

“The big octopuses, they’re around,” says commercial diver Kerry Donahue. Donahue’s company helped build the newer, eastern span of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

“They try to scare you,” he says. “Their big defense mechanism – they get bigger than you are.”

The first time it happened to Donahue, it terrified him. He screamed. “Because your radio is to the surface, you take a lot of flak for screaming like a 2-year-old when you run into an octopus.”

But octopuses are not sea monsters, and they don’t seek humans as prey.

Their species name is Enteroctopus dofleini, but they’re more commonly called the giant Pacific octopus. They have an arm span of up to 20 feet, they can jam into small cracks and holes because their beaks are the only hard part of their bodies, and they change color depending on their mood.

They’re also crafty. Donohue recalled a time when a diver on his team was underwater, cutting metal with a burning rod. He had a stack of rods next to him, and they kept disappearing.

“He’s like, ‘I’m losing my rods. Where are they going?’” Donohue said. “The visibility wasn’t that great. And then he took a rod from his hand and he put it out, and this tentacle comes snaking out and grabbed this Broco rod and took it from him.”

Giant Pacific octopuses lives all over Puget Sound, but the area beneath the Narrows Bridge is a hot spot. It’s a giant buffet down there, a spread created by high currents and massive upwellings that bring nutrient-rich water to the Narrows.

Tim Carpenter, a staff biologist at the Seattle Aquarium, says that’s how, in three to four years, giant Pacific octopuses can reach 100 pounds.

“They have incredible capacity to grow very, very quickly,” Carpenter says. “They can put on the pounds much more quickly than most other animals in the natural world. So they need a lot of food. Whatever they can get their tentacles on.”

At the aquarium, Carpenter took us to meet an octopus that would eventually be on display. The octopus’s name is Jelly Bean, and she was living in what looked like a freezer chest. She bared her stomach to Carpenter, indicating that she was hungry.

“I think she was already fed today so I can’t really give her any food,” Carpenter says. After several moments, Jelly Bean, who had been tasting Carpenter’s hand, peeled herself off him and plunged to the bottom of her enclosure. She turned a mottled white to show her annoyance.

Octopuses in Puget Sound are mostly left alone these days. But there was a time when divers went after them. Bill High, a retired fisheries biologist, was among them.

In the 1950s and 60s, High was part of a dive club called the Mudsharks. The dive club ran a contest on Titlow Beach – the same stretch of sand where young Douglass Brown went on a walk with a girl.

"It was called the World Octopus Wrestling Championships," High says.

That’s right, a wrestling contest – man versus octopus. Divers hold their breath. Swim down. They lure the octopus out of its den and try to bring it up. The octopus tries to escape, hence the wrestling part.”

High says the Mudsharks canceled the contest after a few years. Instead of challenging the animals, they wanted to learn about them.

“They’re perfectly harmless; they’re reclusive animals,” High says. “They’re neat to know.”

Today there are seven octopus protection areas in Puget Sound, so divers can just watch the animals do their thing.

And if you ever have the opportunity to see one out in the open, they get up and fly away using their jet propulsion.

“They just glide out across the water,” High says. “You’re just with this flying machine that’s out there.”

Getting back to Brown: Was the giant arm he saw come out of the water in Tacoma an octopus? We can’t say for sure. It could have been. Strange things happen out there in the water.

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