I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade.

Here’s a little fun fact about that whimsical song:
"I wrote Octopus's Garden in Sardinia. Peter Sellers had lent us his yacht and we went out for the day... I stayed out on deck with [the captain] and we talked about octopuses. He told me that they hang out in their caves and they go around the seabed finding shiny stones and tin cans and bottles to put in front of their cave like a garden. I thought this was fabulous, because at the time I just wanted to be under the sea too. A couple of tokes later with the guitar - and we had Octopus's Garden!” - Ringo Starr

Octopuses are indeed "fabulous" creatures. I spent about an hour yesterday staring at one because I just couldn’t turn away. It was better than watching Animal Planet. Oh and yes, the plural is indeed octopuses. Octopus comes from Greek and the word octopi comes from mistakenly using the rules for Latin plurals. (Silly linguistics degree spoiling all the fun).

Let me go back to the beginning of the day because hearing about me stare at an octopus for an hour might get a bit more tedious than my experience was.

Fletch and I took the boat out for the second time ever! On our first journey out into the great and wild ocean I learned how to drive it. I still have a lot of learning to do, but at least I can start it and make it go forwards and backwards without crashing into things (so far). On our second outing we brought a friend from the dive shop, Stefan, who had the day off. Fletch went and picked him up and then we loaded up the boat and hitched the trailer onto our car and drove it over to one of the many boat ramps around the island.

This is our little boat!

We tootled around the rock islands, tracking our route on the nautical maps loaded onto Fletch’s iPad as we went so that we wouldn’t get lost in the great, tropical labyrinths. We found a spot that looked nice for snorkeling, complete with a sandy patch to anchor the boat in, and so stopped to check it out. Of course at that moment Stefan decided to tell us that within the rock islands we had to watch out for saltwater crocodiles. Yes, we have saltwater crocodiles here. Sharks aren’t anything to be afraid of in the water but crocs are an entirely different matter. Seeing the looks of concern on our faces he told us that they like to hang out in the mangroves. Looking around we didn’t see any mangroves and so decided we were good. Out of sight, out of mind.

The water was lovely and warm. I’m so happy it’s finally warming up from when we first arrived. Soon I’ll be able to dive without a wetsuit again. We snorkeled around some and looked for fish big enough to spear. Nothing was around aside from some small reef fish though. We decided to swim around to the other side of one of the rock islands to see if there was better life over there. While swimming around, the water got really shallow and murky and the coral turned into sand and beds of seaweed. All I could think of was what a nice spot this would be for crocodiles to hang out in.

I finally made it to deeper water but there still weren’t very many fish out and about, so we decided to swim back to the boat and go find another spot to check out. We meandered our way through countless limestone knobs and found our way over to a little bay where Stefan had remembered there being a cave. Sure enough, there in the rock wall surrounding us, there was an opening the size of a large vehicle. We swam over to the mouth right as a speed boat loaded down with Chinese tourists came zooming around the corner. The local driver saw me about to swim inside and asked if he could go in. I swam out of the way and the boat full of tourists equipped with life jackets and cameras disappeared into the darkness. A moment and several camera flashes later they reappeared and zoomed off again.

We swam into the cave, now thick with gas fumes, and took a quick look around at the dark, open space. It was about big enough to fit a small house inside. Stalactites dripped from the ceiling and below the surface of the water, the sandy bottom dropped several meters lower than it had been outside the cave. It would have been really cool had the gas-filled air not chased us out as soon as we had entered. We stayed in the little bay area long enough for the speed boat to come back two more times, each with a new load of tourists.

When we’d had our fill of watching boat-loads of Chinese being transported to and from the cave like it was a ride at Disneyland, we boarded our little boat and continued along on our merry way. Stefan had another cave to show us, and so pointed us in the direction of one rock in particular named Turtle Island. We had to cross a shallow bit of reef to get there and noted that the tide was starting to go out.

Tides in Palau are a lot to keep up with. High and low tides each happen twice a day, and high tide from one day to the next is an hour to an hour and a half later than it was the previous day. The largest known tidal range in Koror is 7.7 feet. So the areas surrounding the rock islands that are fairly shallow can be seven feet underwater during high tide and completely dry during low tide. It would be incredibly easy to get a boat stuck if the tide was falling and you didn’t know where you were going. This is why we’ve erred on the side of caution with getting the boat out so far.

We arrived at the cave and saw the opening in the rock, this mouth smaller than the last, too small for a boat to fit through. We anchored the boat and hopped in the water to go explore. To enter the cave required that we swim, but once inside, the water shallowed up and we were able to walk out onto a concealed, rocky beach. The space inside was magnificent. One large window, a few meters climb up the wall had a tree growing just outside and looked out onto the ocean below. Another smaller window, higher up and not so easily accessed, allowed sunlight to stream in. The names of a few travelers who had been inside before were scrawled across the walls. It was the perfect hideout, straight out of an adventure novel.

We eventually made our way back into the water and exited the cave to go for a snorkel. I swam around the outskirts of the rock island that housed the cave and not five minutes later, popped my head out of the water to yell “Octopus!” at the boys. Directly in front of me in the shallow water was a maroon orb, the size of a baseball, with eight suction-covered tentacles attached. He did’t care that I was there either. He just continued about his business.

He seemed to be practicing his camouflaging tricks. He would blob over to a bit of bleached coral, turn maroon and puff white spikes out on his skin, then slink across the sand and become a speckled white color, then settle himself onto another bit of coral and turn brown and take on the appropriate texture. Each time he switched his disguise he practically disappeared except that I knew I was looking at him. It was the most amazing show. And each change happened instantaneously. An octopus can change the color of its entire body in just three-tenths of a second.

Do you see the octopus? 
How about now? 

He had the red and brown colors down. I watched as he went from mauve with a single white stripe running down the middle of his head, then sidled over to a nice bit of staghorn coral and took on the same bubbled texture. He found a nice little niche to settle himself into except for one branch of coral that seemed to be in his way. So with a snap that echoed through the otherwise silent water, he broke the obtrusive branch off and settled into his spot. Silly octopus, didn’t you know that coral takes years and years to grow? A moment later he was on the move again, changing colors every moment of the way.

He found a nice little hole in the rock and poked his tentacles in to explore. Apparently unhappy with the hole’s contents, he suddenly started flinging dead tree leaves out in a fiery manner. Once clear, he settled inside for a minute or so, then popped back out again and continued with his camouflaging practice.

He landed on a bit of mossy green coral and finally found a challenge. His work with the green end of the color spectrum wasn’t nearly as impressive as his accomplishments with reds and browns and whites. He tried to take on the mossy green color and instead turned a rather clownish shade of bright teal. He swapped back to his comfortable maroon and tried again, only to once more turn a lovely shade of aqua. Apparently embarrassed, he hurried away to a coral more suitable to his abilities.

I floated at the surface of the water watching the octopus a foot below me for an hour. His constant color and texture changing left me completely transfixed. At long last I looked up to the rest of the world around me and saw Fletch and Stefan drifting closer and closer back towards the boat. Figuring we would probably be leaving soon, I said goodbye to the wondrous cephalopod and swam that way as well.

As we still hadn’t seen any fish big enough for spearing, we decided to leave the shelter of the rock islands and head out a little bit into open water to someplace deeper. The water levels were getting dangerously low though and so by the time we anchored the boat, we decided just to check the spot out to see if it was worth coming back to, and then begin the journey home. I was happy but tired and chilled by that point and so volunteered to stay on board. For ten minutes I laid out on the bow and tried to get some sun on my front to match the burn on my back from hours spent snorkeling.

By the time we started heading in, the water was almost too shallow in some areas to make it. We slowed the boat down to almost nothing and raised the motor up so that it was barely in the water. We scraped the bottom of the boat a little bit but eventually made it back to water deep enough to drive in. Looking at the map, we realized that our starting point was just around the corner. Our meandering on the way out had apparently led us in circles so that we were now nearly at our boat ramp. Sure enough we turned the corner into our bay and found ourselves home safely after a great day of adventure.

(Vintage poster originally designed for John and Sherry Petersik)