Friday, January 03, 2014

Hellenic Octopus Hunting

The weather in Greece is usually good, sometimes great. Heading out for a week at the crossover of October and November, I expected early winter weather and hoped for blue skies. To my surprise, we arrived to 26° C basking sunshine and were in for some beach time.

Spending the morning at a public Athenian beach on the Saronic gulf, a middle-aged Greek man in speedos gave me an offer I could not refuse. Want to come Octopus hunting?

While on the Greek islands, I have seen fisherman using long tridents to skewer octopus from small boats, but I have never before seen it done the more hands-on way. Here I was being invited to not only see it, but help do it. While I was traditionally squeamish of such things, I am increasingly interested in seeing how things end up on my plate.

Costa is a specialist. Whenever on the beach, he kits up, leaves his wife to the sun and sets out in search of eight-legged food. The kit I mention is nothing more than a snorkel, mask, fins, knife, hand-spear, buoy on a rope and a small bottle of unidentified liquid tucked into the back of his tight speedos. Before I have had time for second thoughts, Costa has chucked me his spare, rather tired, snorkel and mask and we were off into the shallows.

The water was much warmer than expected. The beach was hemmed in on one side by a marina and on the other by the coast itself, as it turned at a right angle before opening back up into the wider bay. We swam straight out, beyond the sheltered cove and into more open sea. I immediately saw why the buoy was a necessity. Costa’s hunting ground was in a channel frequented by speed boats (and crazy Greek speed boat drivers), and a fluorescent buoy on the surface gave him a chance of not being hit when diving under the waves.

Only having bare feet, I had to front crawl at some pace to keep up with the fin propelled Costa. At regular intervals he would duck dive, glide down to the bottom and investigate the scene for our prey. I dived down after him, looking where he looked, and trying to understand his approach. If I picked up enough, I could hope to catch my own 8-legged delicacies on Antiparos!

He explained the tell-tell signs of octopi. They like to hide under ledges or burrow down into holes, covering themselves with stones for camouflage. The octopi in these parts have a habit of flinging out small white stones from their hiding place, providing a give-away circular pattern.

Over the next hour of swimming, diving and searching, we found a number of these lairs, but each time they were empty, the previous occupant either having moved residence or been eaten. I was beginning to lose hope when Costa gestured to me excitedly. I looked over and he pointed at an outcrop of rocks roughly 4m down. “Octopodi, Octopus”. As hard as I peered I could not make it out, so he dived down and pointed his hand-spear right at it. Undoubtedly an octopus. Great! What next?

I dived down as it retracted its tentacles and all but a sliver of its body under the rock shelf. Costa took some air, finned down next to the shelf and thrust his spear into the body of the octopus. It jerked back and disappeared from view, leaving only the end of the spear poking out from the overhang and jiggling in protest. Another dive down and Costa reached in to retrieve the octopus, but to no avail, as the creature backed up further, out of reach.

Just as matters looked forlorn, Costa took out the small bottle of liquid from the back of his speedos. We dived down together and I watched him squirt a small amount of the liquid under the shelf and into the vicinity of the octopus. There was no immediate effect, but after a few seconds delay, a couple of its legs unfurled in our direction as it repulsed from Costa’s liquid and made the fatal error of moving within Costa’s grasp.

In an instant Costa had grabbed the octopus by the head and wrenched it out of its hole. All flailing, rasping, sucking limbs, the animal did all it could to right itself and sink its sharp beak into its adversary. Costa surfaced, fighting fiercely with both hands. As the octopus clenched all of its limbs around his forearm and writhed one way and then the other, Costa felt for a lip over the back of its head, pulled and inserted his hand.

To my shock and wonder, he stuck his digits right in and ripped and retrieved what looked like a significant portion of the octopus’ brains. The fight of the octopus only fortified. It expelled gushing quantities of black ink which enveloped Costa’s arm. Costa flipped between thwarting the octopus’ attempts to turn on his flesh by ripping the grip of its legs off his arm and delving back into the head cavity, pulling out more brains and internal vitals.

After a last furious effort, the fight fizzled out, Costa ceased his internal excavations and handed me the octopus. Yes, that’s right, handed me the oh-so-recently flailing animal. I took hold of the head only to quickly reject it as the legs of the brainless mollusc reached up and tangled around my arm, gaining purchase with their suckers. I regained my composure and took hold of the head again before the octopus sank down.

With a smile, Costa ushered me on to find more octopus as I struggled behind in an awkward one-armed freestyle. My other arm was doing its best to drag the octopus in just the right way so that its limbs were left trailing behind by our forward propulsion (and hence as far as possible from my arm). Intermittently I lost this little battle, one tentacle after another creeping back up my hand and sucking onto my skin before I slowed and wrenched it back into the slipstream. An enlightening, if slightly grizzly experience. Eventually, the octopus stopped moving.

After a long, drawn out search for the first octopus, our luck was in. Costa soon found another hidden in a crumpled rock formation. After close inspection he informed me it was only a juvenile and better left alone.

We moved on, in a wide arch back towards the beach and, unfortunately, to the inevitable return to normality… until… just as we passed the shallow outcrop of flat, creviced rocks that spread out from the edge of the bay… I spotted it. A large octopus squeezed down in a narrow channel carved through an otherwise flat rock. I raced in front to grab Costa’s attention, ungainly resorting to pulling his fin. To my relief, the octopus was still where I left it when Costa and I came back.

Time for a new technique. Costa explained how an octopus in the hand can make it easier to catch more. They are cannibalistic and are attracted to the smell of their kin. On Costa’s instruction I dived down and flailed the recently deceased octopus over the opening above the very much alive octopus. Its tentacles tentatively reached out, but not enough for me to grab it (to this day, I am not sure if I would have actually grabbed it).

I surfaced ready for another attempt, only to be interrupted by a call from a swimmer. I had completely lost track of time. What had been just a blink of an adventure in my head, had taken over two hours. I was needed back in reality. I gave my apologies, left Costa to take another octopus for the pot (or grill - I prefer it on the grill) and raced back to shore.

That night I dined on octopus.

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