It was the stuff of superhero movie plot lines, but this outstanding underwater altercation really happened and was luckily caught on camera by the talented Blue Planet 2 camera crew. In an “octopus versus shark” mega battle of wits and will, the sequence took place in a South African kelp forest as the hunter, an octopus on the trail of a tasty dinner, became the hunted. The octopus responded in the most extraordinary way.
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The BBC explained that the kelp forest is “fed almost constantly by two vast deep sea currents” and is rich in nutrients, meaning that it’s also a rich hunting ground for the octopus. However, the environment is equally friendly to “vast colonies of fur seals and other predators that are as likely to find the octopus a tasty morsel.” The predator on this occasion, a filming expedition in 2017, was the duplicitously named pyjama shark (not a sweet, sleepy persona in sight), and boy, was it determined.
In the first of two jaw-dropping interactions, the hungry pyjama shark sinks its teeth into the octopus’s body; the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the battle is over before it’s started. However, the industrious, eight-limbed creature has a secret power move. She pushes her deft tentacles into the shark’s gills in an attempt to cut off its air supply. Frankly, it is a genius move.
But does it work?
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“The octopus is far from finished,” the show’s narrator Sir David Attenborough calmly discloses. “She slips her tentacles into the shark’s gills and that prevents the shark from breathing, so the shark has to let go. In a forest full of hungry mouths,” Attenborough continues, “superior wits allow this octopus to stay alive.” And that’s not all. In the kelp forests of South Africa, octopuses have clearly developed some extraordinary ways to keep themselves safe from roaming predators. Sometimes, that involves hiding in plain sight. Intrigued?
In a second clip, the octopus is “caught out in the open and vulnerable,” Attenborough narrates. But as a shark approaches, she devises another genius solution: “She disguises herself with the protective armour of shells.” The octopus is filmed using her tentacles to suck shells toward her body to form a protective camouflage, then she curls up into an innocuous-looking shell ball. “The shark can sense its prey,” Attenborough explains, “but the shells confuse it.” The shark, intrigued, nudges at the bundle, but in an opportune moment, the octopus breaks free. She quickly swims away, unnoticed. The shark is left thoroughly confused in her wake.
“She’s a rockstar, man,” one cameraman told The Independent.
Episode producer Kathryn Jeffs told Yahoo that she considers octopuses one of her favorite species. “You have this impression that they just have this sort of alien intelligence that we couldn’t perhaps understand,” she shared, “but seeing this footage was just mind-blowing because then there’s proof. There’s this phenomenally clever animal that’s just doing everything it can,” she continued, awestruck, “using its wits to survive against quite a ruthless predator.”
Series producer Mark Brownlow, like Jeffs, wanted nothing more than to celebrate the marvelous mysteries of marine life. “From towering undersea forests of giant kelp to vast prairies of sea grass,” he waxed lyrical, “this is an almost Brothers Grimm fairy tale of all the strange and magical creatures that live within these secret worlds.”
If the rest of the series is anything like as mind-blowing as “octopus versus shark,” then it’s a no-brainer; get comfy, make popcorn, and turn off your mobile phone, because this entire series deserves a revisit.