My Octopus - Natural Born Rider

Essay and Photographs by Wayne Jones

Blackwater dives are rising in popularity, and with more people exploring deep water at night, many never before seen animals are now being photographed.  My favourite is undoubtedly the Paper nautilus.

The huge variety of marine species that dwell within this dark element of our oceans seems immeasurable. The inky blackness transforms into a rich soup of larval life when exposed through the underwater photographers’ lights. The ‘down-line’ of lights attracts plankton, which in turn attract larval stage predators and the creatures that prey upon them, as well as the underwater photographers/videographers that seek to capture their images. For me, being based in Anilao and just a stone’s throw away from some of the best Blackwater in the world, offers an outstanding opportunity to regularly photograph and observe these unique stages of marine life and their mesmerizing behaviours. 

The Paper nautilus, Argonauta, is a distant relative of the common nautilus, Nautilidae, though they are both in the class Cephalopoda. The Argonauta is a pelagic octopus that does not access the seabed and as such, requires an alternate process to ensure the safety of egg brooding. The ‘shell’, which is actually a secretion that appears to be produced from the tips of some, if not all, of the octopus’ tentacles, is actually an ‘egg brooding case’ that only the females produce. It is the shape of this paper-thin egg case, similar in appearance to the shell of the actual Nautilus, which is how the common name Paper nautilus is derived.

born rider 03 IMG 7674 WJones

Argonauta can be found here in the waters of Janao Bay, Anilao at most times of the year, though December to March appears to be the most prolific time. They can be observed through many size parameters, and while occasionally free swimming, they are usually attached to or within something. They seem “Born to Ride”!

The smallest ones I have seen were safely nestled within salps or tunicates. They share this habitat with many other species such as parasites and amphipods amongst other tiny marine species some of which I am sure provide an easy meal. Photographing them in these scenarios, while a captive subject, can be difficult due to the very small size, opacity and constant swirling of the pelagic salp ribbons, though the variety can be spectacular.

At this tiny stage, they are also frequently seen attached to pteropods of which they are alike in size. The small Argonauts are certainly using these as a defence shield, skillfully manoeuvring them between the photographer’s lens and themselves. You can swim around and around keeping them focused in your viewfinder, seeing nothing but the pteropod and a pair of Argonauta eyes peeking back at you. With time and patience however, endearing portraits can be captured.

born rider 02 IMG 9835 WJones

As these remarkable Argonauts grow, they seek bigger and more impressive vehicles for their journeys. Jellyfish must be their desired space craft, as it is the most common partnership I have observed. To what extent the jellyfish benefits from this unique union I am not sure, but they do become jet powered, and the extra sensory functions of the Argonauta seem to aid the jellyfish in being propelled away from dangers such as unwanted UW photographers. The females, which are much large than the males, can be observed forming egg cases with their tentacles.

Once the Argonauta reach their mid-size stage, they once again seek a suitably proportioned mode of transport. Larger jellyfish fulfil this need and the Argonauta, of which A. hians and A. argo are commonly observed here, become jet pilots. Their ability to propel and steer their jellyfish is profound, and it is as though the jellyfish has become an extension of the Argonauta. While they certainly grow larger, I have not seen the big ones indulging in this type of behaviour here in Janao Bay, Anilao.

The larger adults of the species Argonauta argo are free-swimming and they too hang around the drop line of lights, attracted to the multitude of small marine life. They wait in the darkness just outside the light’s radius, and dart in to intercept prey. They are superlatively fast, making them a real challenge to photograph, but some come to relax in front of your lens, even sitting atop your housing as you go from the impossibility of trying to chase them down to back kicking desperately just to get them in frame. These are around 10 centimetres in diameter or larger, and the fact that they are hunting may be why they are not attached to a jellyfish.  One was quite happy to sit on top of my camera housing and I had to very gently get her off of it.

Ultimately, Argonauta require things to attach to, and while I have observed them free- swimming, this would appear a strong innate desire within them. If they cannot find an animate partner, the unfortunate influx of trash in our oceans seems to provide them with a wide variety of attachment options. This plastic plague is having devastating and dire consequences for not just marine life, but all life on this blue planet as we know it.

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