A Day With Octopus Woman

My Life With Cephalopods

Manzanillo, Mexico

From the restaurant on the beach at La Boquita it's an easy swim, even in scuba gear, to the stern of the wreck. La Boquita is a local Mexican beach, the restaurant really a thatch roof over sand with a kitchen shack attached. The owners let Susan and her dive parties stage their gear from its tables because they know the divers will return hungry and run up a good bill. It's a symbiotic relationship that has worked for fourteen years.

Under a sun beginning to be hot with late morning, we walked into mild surf, inflated our BCs, put on our fins, and started swimming backward toward the wreck. Besides Susan and me, there was a family of four Mississippians on vacation. They had found her dive operation, Underworld Scuba, the same way I had: The Internet, which roars along in Mexico.

The San Luciano was not my idea of a wreck. I was used to the deep wrecks off North Carolina, the Papoose and the Aeolus and the U-232, that start 110 feet down and many miles off shore. The San Luciano was in all of twenty-five feet of water. I thought it was probably a good first dive for people Susan deals with. A dive shop gets all sorts of divers, from loud and clueless to reserved and comfortable. All have C-cards, but you can't tell what they really know. Ninety feet down on a night dive with low vis is not the place to realize that a diver is in beyond his abilities. She can accommodate anybody, but she likes to know who she is accommodating.

We grouped up and went down. Blue sky ceded to dappled green, soothing in its dimness, occasional fish watching with their usual expression of cold forlorn brainlessness. Maybe they are Little Richard fans in the privacy of what minds they have, but they look bored and stupid. We stopped just above the bottom at what my computer said was twenty-four feet. The Luciano stretched away into nothing, crumbling into ruin, holes gaping where steel plates had given up the struggle, covered with the weird growth that takes over everything in the sea.

At that depth, air lasts forever. Until Susan began digging, I just floated along ssssssssssss-wubbawubbawubba reflecting that if nuclear war began, or the Black Death broke out again in Europe, or radioactive vampire bats from space ate Tokyo, my editors couldn't get in touch with me. It is one of the consolations of diving.

Susan is a tall blonde and looks like a Valkyrie, but in fact has a lot of Indian blood. Perhaps she is one of the Oslo Cherokees. She dropped to the sand next to a disintegrating girder. She went negative to peg herself to the bottom, and peered beneath it. It was her Octopus Response. You know how a bird dog alerts on a partridge? That's Susan. Only it's octopuses. She just, you know, likes them.

And has an affinity for them. Some months back the Discovery Channel wanted to film underwater here and asked her to guide them. She has logged over 3000 dives around Manzanillo, and so knows the ocean hereabout. She quickly found them an octopus eating a puffer fish, which is impossible. You don't just find things like that. Except she does. It isn't luck or skill. It's more like telepathy. The camera crew wouldn't stop filming and almost drowned.

I planted myself full length on the sand next to her, and the Mississippians hovered above. I couldn't see squat. She could. Moving slowly, she reached under the girder, removed a piece of shell, reached into the hole up to her wrist. Nothing. She pulled out a piece of rock, and reached farther in, very slowly.

I don't reach into holes under water. There are moray eels in them. All of them. Huge morays. I'm sure of it. Not to mention fire coral and deadly venomous sea urchins unknown to science. On the other hand, Susan has been doing it for years and she still has two arms. Of course, I don't know how many she started with.

Next, so help me, she took her glove off, and reached back in, halfway to her elbow. There's a reason for this. Actually, there probably isn't, but she says there is. Octopuses don't like the texture of gloves.

"They like the feel of flesh," she says.

If that's not comforting, I can't imagine what might be.

At first, she says, they barely touch your fingers. Then they get exploratory, and suck on to you, like amorous bath mats. There's no hostility: They can bite if they want to. They're probably just thinking, "Gosh, wonder what this is?" And maybe, "Do I want one?"

She slowly pulled her hand out and, ye gods and little catfish, a sure-enough octopus was wrapped around it. He (sex is actually a bit arbitrary in octopuses) looked like a dirty gym sock: The concept of shape isn't well developed among octopuses.

He had a certain appeal. Call it aesthetic insouciance: He was perfectly content to look like a gym sock, and wasn't about to wear designer jeans to get on the cover of GQ.

He ran up her shoulder, clambered over her regulator hoses, and attached himself to her tank. Then he sat, formlessly, and sucked onto my finger when I offered it to him.

Maybe he thought he had caught Susan, and was no end proud of himself. Or maybe he didn't know what to do with her. I figured octopuses proved the theory of evolution, since nobody would design one on purpose. On the other hand, nothing so profoundly odd could happen by accident, either. There may not be an explanation for octopuses.

After a bit he decided he didn't need further human company, and jetted back to the wreck to pry things open and eat them. We swam off to investigate other improbabilities. I actually missed him, and wished I could take him home and stick him to the bathroom mirror. The effect on drunks at parties would have justified the expense.

That was my adventure with Octopus Woman. Any time you think you have existence excessively figured out, and grow bored, and sink into ennui, get Susan to find you an octopus. It'll fix what ails you.