Dive into murky water, thrust your hand into a hole, and return to the surface with with an octopus. Octopus wrestling sounds like a horribly rude form of aquatic home invasion. But let's time travel back to the Pacific Northwest circa 1960, when this was a popular spectator sport.
In octopus wrestling, points are awarded to divers based on the weight of the octopi wrangled to the surface, along with bonuses accrued for skipping out on breathing equipment. Let's take a look at the octopus wrestling scene in the 1950s and 1960s, a very dramatic account from the 1940s that is often cited as the origin of octopus wrestling, and the current legality of wrangling with cephalopods today.
Octopus Wrestling In The Puget Sound
A report from the November 24, 1957 edition of the Toledo Blade details a gathering of 200 people to watch an octopus wrestling event in the Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington.
Teams of threee unarmed skin divers competed to garner points based on the use of snorkels versus breathing tanks and the final weight of octopi wrestled to the surface. A team from Portland, Oregon, won the contest, hauling in an eighty-pound octopus in the process. Let it be noted that Giant Pacific Octopi (Octopus dofleini) are rather timid and not at all aggressive unless provoked, with most cases of provocation ending with the octopus fleeing.
The 1963 World Octopus Wrestling Championships
Octopus wrestling was a popular pursuit in the Puget Sound over the next several years, with the World Octopus Wrestling Championship held there in 1963. Over 5,000 locals visited Titlow Beach to watch the festivities.
Due to concerns about boredom and a deal to televise the championships, organizers placed several octopi along the beach to promise action and a modicum of success for contestants.
Octopus wrestling isn't so much wrestling per se – it's more akin to sticking your hand into a dark cavern and ripping an octopus out. Divers stick their appendages in holes along rocks in the ocean, looking for the bulbous head of an octopus.
Once found, the divers continue pulling until the suction created by the octopus' tentacles is released, allowing diver to end the home invasion and bring the octopus to the surface. Some divers noted a "popping" sound as the war with the aquatic beast neared an end. Once the tentacles are released from the rocks (and the octopus' home), it is easy to bring an octopus to the surface due to the extreme decrease in pressure and its negative impact on the cephalopod.
111 divers set out to win the 1963 Octopus Wrestling Championships, with over twenty Giant Pacific Octopi caught, making the final score humans twenty-something and octopi zero (as no divers received considerable injuries or lost their homes during the contest). But if narrowly avoiding home invasion counts as a win for the Giant Pacific Octopi, we will never know the final score. The octopi captured weighed from four pounds to fifty-seven pounds –- not an extremely large haul. The contestants ate a couple of the octopi, with the rest returned to the Puget Sound or taken in by a local aquarium.
Octopus Wrestling Is My Hobby?
An article from the April 1949 issue of Mechanix Illustrated entitled Octopus Wrestling Is My Hobby, details Wilmon Menard's passion for removing cephalopods from their underwater Tahitian homes. Though the title of the article makes claims of octopus wrestling, the author's vision leans closer to octopus hunting, a bloodsport involving the use of a flute to draw out an octopus and the use of spears to make a kill.
The author notes a "human-like moan" when head of an octopus is pierced — one of the very highly dramatized notations in the article, including a reference to a group of Tahitian villagers aiding the author in killing an octopus featuring 25 foot tentacles. The article ends with a rather dramatic tone, with this line and the aforementioned anecdotes leading this author to believe the 1949 article is a dramatized construction, and far removed from the octopus wrestling practiced in the 1950s and 1960s:
Like to wrestle an octopus? 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.And you'd better watch your step, too. For there's no such thing as a reckless octopus hunter. You're either careful or dead.
No More Octopus Molesting
Octopus wrestling is now illegal in the state of Washington. Octopus wrestling is still practiced in some circles, including the zany realm of Japanese game shows. Divers also continue to come in contact with the creatures, who will purloin your dentures if you're not careful.
Images from the July 1963 issue of Skin Diver Magazine, the Toledo Blade, the WWE, and Mechanix Illustrated. Sources linked within the article. Composite image via here and WWE.