How the bizarre sport of octopus wrestling almost wiped out an entire species

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Before PlayStations, computers and cell phones, people had to find other, more hands-on ways to entertain themselves. The 1940s and 50s ushered in a period of unprecedented prosperity for the emerging middle classes. Suddenly, there was more to life than work, taxes and death. Leisure became a thing and people weren’t quite sure how to handle it. As a result, post-war, pre-high-tech America was a breeding ground for an increasing array of bizarre hobbies, most of which today sound about as entertaining as a mouth ulcer. However, for foodies, there was one new pastime that seemed, on the surface, as delicious as it was daft. This was the age of octopus wrestling.

Octopus wrestling in a magazine Credit: Flickr/Eduardo Urdangaray

The seas in America’s Pacific Northwest are rich with marine life, and there are few regions more diverse than Puget Sound. America’s second largest estuary system is home to nearly 3,500 marine species, ranging from giant whales to tiny molluscs. With such a wealth of natural resources on their doorstep, the people of Washington state spent much of their newfound free time outside - hunting, fishing and generally larking about. However, it soon became clear that, for the more adventurous members of society, these tried, tested and tame pursuits just weren’t going to cut the mustard. They needed a new extreme sport to sink their teeth into.

An article from 1949 soon caught the attention of action-starved adrenaline junkies. The piece, released in now-defunct publication Mechanix Illustrated, detailed the adventures of supreme explorer and wildlife botherer Wilmon Menard. The story Menard told thrilled Americans. He spoke of an ancient Tahitian ritual featuring battles with giant octopuses in the coral atolls of the Pacific - slaying monsters armed only with spears and of sampling this newly discovered marine delicacy in the company of crowing natives, declaring that, “the tentacles, cubed and served with sauce made from their own juice, are delicious”. It all sounded very exciting.

Plate of Octopus cooked in garlic Credit: Flickr/ Bradley Hawks

Throughout the article, Menard made it abundantly clear that octopuses were to be loathed and feared. Words like “monster” and “beast” cropped up time and time again, painting a picture of a vicious predator that should be slaughtered at every opportunity. Menard concluded his account with a plea to Americans, stating, “I realize it all sounds like a loathsome sport but it’s really more fun than hunting some poor harmless creature. When you wrestle and kill an octopus, you’re ridding the marine world of a treacherous enemy”. America bought it, hook, line and sinker.

Within a decade, Seattle had established the United States’ first octopus wrestling club. Founded by local diving group the Pugent Sound Mud Sharks, the club specialised in wrangling giant Pacific octopus from the cool, shallow waters of the sound, and had soon built a reputation as the best in the business. Expeditions would regularly return to shore and entertain locals with live bundles of bewildered cephalopod in tow. The panicked creatures would then either be returned to the sea, donated to a local aquarium, or, as was often the case, roasted on a barbecue and eaten.

Octopuses on a barbecue

Though the sport was described as wrestling, the reality was more akin to kidnap. Divers would descend, either on scuba or on a single breath, to the sea floor, where they would scout out an octopus den. Once their target had been acquired, teams of two or three would proceed to pull out the traumatised creature by hand. Though giant octopus can be, as the name implies, extremely large, they are deceptively weak and timid creatures who rarely attack unless provoked. Once their suckers have been detached from a rock or other flat surface, it’s surprisingly easy to get them to the surface, as the change in water pressure adversely affects their soft bodies. This makes octopus wrestling about as courageous as tackling a snail.

Thanks to their heroic exploits, the club soon began to attract a dedicated fanbase. Perhaps surprisingly for a sport whose action takes place completely under water, octopus wrestling became increasingly popular with spectators, no-doubt drawn in by the promise of an end-of-contest seafood barbecue. Before long, numbers were so vast that the sport’s organisers decided to host a dedicated world championship. In the 1963 competition, 111 divers took part in an event that completely rid an entire area of innocent octopus.  

Octopus barbecue on a beach Credit: Getty

The national and international attention that octopus wrestling received soon caught the attention of other prominent marine experts. One of these was scuba diving pioneer Jacques Cousteau. In 1971, Cousteau produced the groundbreaking documentary Octopus, Octopus as a result of the cephalopod genocide that was taking place in Seattle. The film put to bed the commonly held belief that octopus were vicious killers, ready to drag any unsuspecting sailor to a watery grave. The documentary marked a turning point for octopus PR and the sport’s popularity soon began to wain as a result. By the mid-70s, the golden age of octopus wrestling was over.

Today, lawmakers have recognised the need to protect rather than vilify this misunderstood marine marvel. In fact, in Washington state, it is now illegal to hunt giant Pacific octopus without a permit, or use anything that can pierce the animal’s skin. In 2012, a video caused a public outcry after 19-year-old Dylan Mayer was filmed writhing in the waters of the Sound, punching an octopus in the face having wrangled the animal to the surface. Despite having all the necessary documentation, as well as the intention of cooking and eating the animal himself, the reaction was so hostile that even tougher legislation was soon introduced.

Octopus wrestling Credit: Flickr/Nalin de Silva

We’ve come a long way from the days of bothering oblivious animals for our own entertainment. However, with many other marine species still under threat from cruel and exploitative fishing practises, it’s clear that we’ve still got a long way to go. But, if the change in attitudes towards the giant Pacific octopus can teach us anything, it’s that we are capable of eventually doing the right thing.