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The home of this “sport” is the Pacific Northwest, where you would normally expect to encounter reasonably sensible behaviour. There has been an Octopus Wrestling World Championship in the region – of course there has. The heyday of the pastime was the late 1950s and 1960s.
Octopus Hunting in Tahiti
Back in 1949 an article appeared in Mechanix Illustrated magazine under the title “Octopus Wrestling is my Hobby.” The author, Wilmon Menard, described a trip to Tahiti to take on what he described as a “demon of fury.”
He wrote how Tahitians believe the giant octopus “to be the prowling ghost of the wicked god Tumuraifenua, who cast the natives into darkness by holding down the sky with his tentacles. According to the legend, sickness overwhelmed the population and slimy monsters crawled from the deep lagoons to devour entire villages.”
His description of his adventures reads more like a hunt and kill operation than a wrestling match, and it reads like the tales of derring-do from the Boy’s Own Paper of decades past.
With his trusted native hunter Roo, “garbed in a scarlet loincloth,” the intrepid Menard stands on the seaward wall of a coral reef. Roo plays a tune on a flute to lure the critter out of its lair. As it comes to the surface to investigate the music the spears go in: “… there would be a human-like moan and the water would be clouded with sepia. The long tentacles would flay the surface of the lagoon in savage fury, as the monster tried to rid itself of our spears which were firmly imbedded in its head.”
They hauled the wounded beast in with ropes attached to the spears and took it back to the village. “And,” Menard writes rather incredulously, “what did the natives do with it? They ate it!” Wow! Just like we do today in restaurants all over the world.
An Alternative History
The journalist H. Allen Smith reached back into the 1920s (some say the 1940s) to write about a couple of colourful characters named Vanderhoeven and O’Rourke (True magazine). These two started up a business providing octopi to Chinese customers.
Their “fishing” technique was unusual. O’Rourke would strip naked, don a diving helmet, and jump into the water where the creatures were known to hang out. Using himself as live bate, O’Rourke would tempt a mollusc to latch onto him. He would fake a struggle to encourage the animal to tighten its grip.
Journalist Smith came up with a great line to describe the struggle: O’Rourke knew “that it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus; he knew full well the futility of trying for a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches.”
After his opponent had a solid grip, O’Rourke would tug on a line to signal Vanderhoeven to haul him and his catch to the surface. Once aboard their boat, Venderhoeven would lay about the octopus with a 17th century Italian sword.
H. Allen Smith is often described as a humourist as well as a journalist, so it’s perfectly in order to wonder at the authenticity of this Venderhoeven/O’Rourke yarn.
Who Will Prevail?
Take your pick about which origin you prefer, but something sparked interest in arm-to-arm-arm-arm etc battles with the terror of the deep; the epicentre of the activity being the chilly waters of Puget Sound, Washington.
People being the competitive animals they are, soon decided to make a contest out of it. Rules were codified and contestants started plunging into the briny ocean to actually wrestle with the cephalopods rather than just stabbing them from relative safety atop a coral reef.
Teams of two or three, either snorkelling or scuba diving, (different rules apply for each) descend to where the octopi hang out and attempt to bring one to the shore, for weighing and the distribution of bragging rights.
In 1963 it was time for the local lads to test their mettle against the world; although it seems just about everybody involved was from the Puget Sound area.
The Seattle Times notes that “… a reported 5,000 people watched 111 divers going into the waters off Titlow Beach near the Tacoma Narrows.”
Gary Keffler was the organizing genius behind the event and also the winner
By all accounts, although not that of Wilmon Menard (“The monster … lashed out menacingly with its long writhing tentacles …”), octopi are mostly timid and don’t put up much of a fight. Their usual strategy is to quit the field of battle with as much speed as they can muster. As world champion Gary Keffler puts it “You roll around, staging that you’re fighting him. They’re not very aggressive.”
The world championships did not last long; a couple more years only. The spectator appeal of standing around on a beach waiting for someone to drag a large slimy bag out of the water wore off. Also, the authorities took a dim view of what was going on. Washington State declared octopus wrestling illegal.
There are still pockets of enthusiasts though in Japan where messing about with octopi turns up on some of those strange game shows the Japanese love.
Octopi are among the most intelligent invertebrates, can learn skills by watching other octopi, and use tools.
They have been observed playing with toys and some scientists believe they have individual personalities.
They can squeeze through an opening no bigger than their own eyeballs.
There are more than 300 species of octopus.
In addition to the four pairs of arms that operate independently, octopi have three hearts.
“Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and other Forgotten Sports.” Edward Brooke-Hitching, Simon and Schuster, 2015.
“Octopus Wrestling Is My Hobby.” Wilmon Menard, Mechanix Illustrated, April 1949.
“Giant Octopuses Weren’t the World’s Best Wrestlers.” Erik Lacitis, Seattle Times, March 6, 2010.
“Octopus.” Onekind.org, undated