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Finding happiness in Sydney's underwater world

- By Sarah Han de Beaux

I was once listening to people discussing whether their memories of happiness are just an illusion. Were they actually truly happy in the moment, or was it just looking back at that memory over time that makes them happy? For instance, when on holiday we take lots of photos of us smiling and so it gives an illusion that every holiday is happy from start to finish. Whereas, we all know that we have smiled for the camera briefly and then continued doing what we were doing. It isn’t actually a continuously happy occasion from start to finish. However, there is a place I often frequent which does give me true happiness. I appreciate it is not accessible to everyone, but most people who could experience this source of happiness are instead clouded with misconceptions and fear and so they won’t even try it out. I would like to talk about this source of happiness and describe experiences where yes, in that moment I have been truly happy. For me, and my community of friends, the place to go…is underwater! I hope that by sharing my experiences with others it may inspire others to not only explore the underwater world, but to protect it for the future.

Living in the city of Sydney, Australia comes with a major benefit that millions of people living here do not appreciate or understand. Here is where to find the octopus! For years, I had been diving around the world hoping to see an octopus. I have had plenty of dives at the Great Barrier Reef and not seen a single octopus. Over multiple dives at the Galapagos, I did not see a single octopus. Across many other dives in the tropical waters of Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Borneo, I recall seeing just two octopus, but both very briefly as they were super shy and disappeared quickly. Again in the Mediterranean and Atlantic ocean across the Azores, Tenerife, and Croatia, I have not seen a single octopus. Even on other popular diving locations up and down New South Wales, and the rest of Australia including the Ningaloo Reef, I can probably count how many octopus I have seen on one hand. Yet in Sydney it is rare to miss an octopus! They can be seen on almost every dive in Sydney. This is not to say they are overpopulated. And you are certainly not guaranteed to see them! But if you know where to look, you will find them. We have a healthy population that are tame and fairly familiar with divers and so do not always hide and disappear away. Of course, the behaviour they show you will align with the behaviour you show it. If you are fast with your movements and appear to be threatening to the octopus then of course they will disappear and hide, but as long as you are calm, kind and give them space then you can get wonderful experiences with these gentle animals.

Over hundreds of dives in Sydney I have had countless experiences with octopus and I never get tired of them. At one dive site in Sydney’s harbour, I spent almost an hour just hovering over the sandy bottom and watching two octopus interacting with each other. They were mating not body to body, like us humans would, but sat side by side in their separate dens with his long mating arm, known as the hectocotylus, outstretched into her den presumably reaching inside her mantle to pass on his sperm. It was incredible to watch. Even whilst he was busy in this task he was watching around him and using his other arms to continue holding shells against him like a cloak of disguise! The whole experience was fascinating to watch. I later learned that the male does this in case the female decides to reward him by eating him! At least by just stretching out his arm she can bite off his arm and he will survive.

In Kurnell, Botony Bay in Sydney, I once watched two octopus mating in a more familiar fashion, on top of each other. It was like watching a dance – again, simply fascinating. It may not have ended too well for the male octopus though if she decided to eat him afterwards! At night in the harbour, you can get really up close and personal with octopus – they seem far more curious at night and it is an incredible experience to play with them. My favourite experience of interacting with an octopus was again, in Sydney Harbour, this time in the daytime, where there was an octopus who started to interact with me. At first it was so shy as I hovered in the water next to it, but then it extended its arm slowly and touched the edge of my hand. Just as it touched me, it recoiled straight away, but I just stayed still, so it did it again and again. Before too long it had built up the courage to happily extend its arm and place more of its suckers on my fingers, then my hand, and eventually as it built some trust it would start to pull me towards it. Over 30 minutes went by, with this octopus just looking at me and using its arms to work out what I was. I could see that it was learning from the experience too and so this stands out as another awesome experience where I sat with a wild creature and we both shared in the experience of learning about each other.

Considering that octopus are in the mollusc family, and are genetically closer to an oyster than you or I, this incredible short lived animal is very intelligent. When a human baby is a few months old, I think we can all agree they are not capable of that much. Yet a 2-month-old octopus knows how to change its colour and shape of skin to camouflage with its surroundings, almost perfectly I would add, and can work out that I am a completely different animal that is not a threat and it can learn to play and interact with me. Mind blowing right? So next time you are considering to have a life changing experience, just check out what is underwater in Sydney!


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