Swimmer witnesses surprise fight between octopus and sea lion
Lindsay Bryant was getting ready for a swim when a sea lion thrashing in the water nearby caught her attention.
“At first I thought, ‘Oh, he’s just catching fish,'” the Nanaimo, B.C., woman said. “Then I kind of saw him struggling a bit … so that’s when I pulled out my phone.”
Bryant watched this go on for about five minutes, but it wasn’t until she was back at home and was able to zoom in on the footage that she realized what she had witnessed.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s crazy,” she said. “It was an octopus.”
Thursday’s battle between the aquatic mammal and eight-limbed mollusc took place just south of Nanaimo, which is about 110 kilometres north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.
Bryant, who swims multiple times a week, says sea lions are a near-daily sight but she’s never seen an octopus — let alone a sea lion fighting with one.
The entire event took place about 100 metres from where she was standing, and she could hear the sea lion breathing heavily and regularly disappearing below the surface only to come up again, sometimes tossing the octopus across the water.
“I actually thought that the sea lion was in danger…. It just wasn’t normal behaviour.”
Two species of sea lions inhabit Vancouver Island — Steller sea lions, which breed in the north, and California sea lions, which breed in the south. Each is a type of pinniped, a group of aquatic mammals that also includes seals and walruses.
Both Steller and California sea lions can be seen in Nanaimo, but the Steller is larger and darker.
Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, said in an email to CBC News that — based on her footage — Bryant witnessed a Steller eating a large octopus.
Trites also said while octopi are common prey for Steller sea lions, it is unusual for this sort of encounter to be caught on film.
“The challenge for a sea lion is to swallow an octopus without the octopus using its eight arms to grab onto the sea lion’s head while it is being swallowed whole,” he said. “The sea lion would suffocate.”
“The sea lion’s solution is to bite down onto one arm at a time and fling the octopus’ body with all its force to rip off an arm to swallow whole. They do it at the surface because they can get more torque in air than they can underwater.”
Bryant says, looking back, she does recall seeing smaller chunks being thrown around that at the time she thought might have been fish but “which I’m guessing was octopus legs, unfortunately.”
Octopi can fight back in other ways, as well. In 2010, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game published an account of a Steller sea lion dismembering an estimated 25-pound octopus — an event captured by marine biologist Sherry Tamone, who said it appeared to be a tough fight.
“The octopus can wrap itself around the head of the sea lion and it can bite pretty fiercely. Their beak looks a bit like that of a parrot and each bite delivers some nasty chemicals,” she is quoted as saying in the article.
Her account mimics that seen by Bryant, with the sea lion struggling over several minutes with its opponent.
“It was almost gasping for air, like it was trying to stay above the surface,” Bryant recalled.
Other sea lion versus octopus battles
There have been other memorable pinniped versus octopus battles captured elsewhere in the world, too.
In 2010, National Geographic captured video which showed an Australian sea lion dragging a large octopus to the surface so she can breathe while slowly eating it bite by bite.
And in 2018 footage of a New Zealand fur seal smacking a kayaker with an octopus went viral, though Colleen Reichmuth, who heads up the University of California Santa Cruz’s Pinniped Lab, told NPR it is normal for the animals to smack larger prey around in order to consume them and it likely had nothing to do with the boat being nearby.
A memorable moment
Bryant’s not sure what happened to either animal, though she is pretty sure the sea lion won — but not without a fair bit of pushback from the octopus.
“I definitely think it put up a good fight,” she said.
She says she has had many memorable encounters with ocean life, but this one stands out for how surprising it was.
“It was just crazy,” she said. “I was literally sitting on my couch and I couldn’t believe it when I zoomed in. I’m like, ‘No way,’ because it just made so much sense how everything went down.
“I wish, looking back now, that I knew exactly what was going on, but it was kind of a neat surprise in the end.”