Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, May 6, 1996

Folks who harass octupus
run risk of being bitten

RECENTLY, a marine photographer friend needed a photo of an octopus beak. We decided the best place would be the fish auction held daily, at the crack of dawn, on Ahui Street near Kewalo Basin in Honolulu.

Sure, any octopus there would be dead, but that was likely the only way to get a clear picture of the wiggly animal's mouth.

My friend called me the next day. "Well, I found one all right, but it sure was a weird experience. I had just lined up a picture of a big octopus beak when this guy comes over and asks me what I'm doing.

"I start to tell him. But before I'm even done talking, he grabs the octopus, pops the entire beak in his mouth, bites it off and SWALLOWS it. 'That's how we deal with octopuses around here,' he says."

"I don't get it," I said. "What was his point?"

"I have no idea. He left before I could say a word."

I've heard of octopus fishermen biting octopuses between the eyes. But eating their beak raw? It's a new one to me.

IN Hawaii, octopuses are called he'e (Hawaiian), tako (Japanese), or squid (local vernacular).

Three species inhabit Hawaiian reefs. One is the day octopus or he'e mauli. This octopus is dusky-

gray, or tan, and hunts for crabs and shrimp on exposed areas of the reef. The day octopus grows to about 2 feet long from its head to the end of its outstretched arms.

A similar species is the crescent octopus, named by the student who recognized it 20 years ago. No scientific name has yet been assigned to the creature, which looks like a small day octopus.

Hawaii's third species, the reddish-brown night octopus, or he'e puloa, hunts on the reef at night. This nocturnal octopus, identified by its white spots, is smaller and thinner than the day octopus.

An octopus catches prey by pouncing on it, then enclosing the prey in the web between its eight arms. The octopus immobilizes its catch by biting with two parrotlike jaws, its "beak." Such a bite delivers a paralyzing venom from the animal's salivary glands. Octopus venom contains enzymes that break down proteins, and a glycoprotein (sugar plus protein) toxin.

Hawaii's octopuses all carry venom. None however, contain the potentially lethal tetrodotoxin of Australia's blue ringed octopuses, the only octopuses in the world known to fatally bite humans.

Local fishermen report that most bites come from the night octopus. Typically, fishermen wade onto shallow reef flats, either spearing or catching octopuses by hand. In its death struggle, an octopus sometimes tries to bite the hand that holds it. To subdue this writhing, mucus-covered creature, some fishermen bite the octopus between the eyes.

HAWAII divers usually handle octopuses without being bitten. If the animal is handled gently, it rarely bites. Octopus bites mostly occur when someone harasses them.

An octopus bite can tear a person's skin, sometimes producing bleeding. The octopus sometimes injects venom from its salivary glands when biting humans.

To avoid octopus bites, don't take the animals out of the water. In the water, don't antagonize them. If you do handle an octopus in the water, wear gloves and be kind. Better yet, don't touch.

An octopus bite usually looks like two puncture wounds. If the animal injects venom, the pain is similar to that of a bee sting, with tingling or pulsating sensation around the wound. Pain may radiate to the entire arm or leg.

Venomous octopus wounds can bleed profusely. Redness and swelling of the affected area is common. Some victims experience intense itching around the wound.

Unless a person is allergic to it, venom produced by Hawaii's octopuses is not life-threatening.

As for the wisdom of, or reason for, eating a raw octopus beak? I don't have a clue.

Susan Scott is a marine science writer and author of three books about Hawaii's environment. Her Ocean Watch column appears Monday in the Star-Bulletin.

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