Only a handful of people have spotted the dazzling blanket octopus in the wild, making it one of the rarest sights in the marine world.
Last week, the Technicolor marine mollusk was spotted by reef guide and marine biologist Jacinta Shackleton off the coast of Lady Elliot Island in the Great Barrier Reef.
“When I first saw it, I thought it could have been a juvenile fish with long fins, but as it came closer, I realized it was a female blanket octopus, and I had this overwhelming sense of joy and excitement,” she said.
“I kept yelling through my snorkel: ‘It’s a blanket octopus.’ I was so excited I was finding it difficult to hold my breath to dive down and video it,” she added.
Blanket octopuses are extremely rare. The first sighting of a live male was made 21 years ago in the Ribbon Reefs, just north of the Great Barrier Reef, by Julian Finn, a senior curator of marine invertebrates at Museums Victoria, and his colleagues.
In the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, he said that they are the “most extreme example of sexual size-dimorphism in a non-microscopic animal.”
While females grow up to 2m long, the males have only been seen to grow to about 2.4cm long.
The males also do not develop the blanket octopus’ iridescent “blanket” that makes the species so alluring.
For the females that do develop it, the display can be shed to elude predators.
The extreme difference between the sexes seems to have developed because of the blanket octopus’ unique habit of carrying blue-bottle stingers for self-defense.
Shackleton said she believes that before her sighting, there had only been three sightings of the octopus in the area.
It generally spends its lifecycle in the open ocean, so it is even more unusual to see one on the reef.
Shackleton said she feels lucky to have been in the water at the right time to capture sighting the spectacular species.
It was not Shackleton’s first extraordinary sighting.
She said that she had also encountered an ornate eagle ray and a melanistic manta ray, but added that the blanket octopus “has got to be one of my all-time favorite reef experiences.”
“Seeing one in real life is indescribable. I was so captivated by its movements. It was as if it was dancing through the water with a flowing cape. The vibrant colors are just so incredible. You can’t take your eyes off it,” Shackleton said.
“I’ve truly never seen anything like it before and don’t think I ever will again in my life,” she added.
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