Scientists Explore Large Octopus Garden Off California’s Central Coast

Oct 18, 2019

A team of scientists spent the week exploring an octopus garden in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The garden is a nursery of sorts, a place where hundreds of female octopuses come to lay and take care of their eggs. Brimming with brooding moms, it’s the largest octopus garden ever discovered. 

KAZU News connected with some of the local scientists involved in the expedition while they were out at sea. 

“It's almost freezing down there. It's clearly a place humans can't go scuba diving,” said Chad King, lead scientist on the cruise and a research specialist with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. 

So, they rely on underwater robots. The expedition was a team effort between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Ocean Exploration Trust, a nonprofit that owns and operates the trip’s exploration vessel. It’s called E/V Nautilus. Onboard were two remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, that can operate in the deep sea. 

King says these robots, called Hercules and Argus, worked together to collect samples and capture video. As the scientists watched the footage inside the Nautilus, the public has been able to see it too, from their living rooms, classrooms and more. 

Lead Scientist Chad King views underwater footage of the octopus garden inside the research vessel's control room.
Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The team’s dives into the octopus garden were live streamed at nautiluslive.org. Footage showed

hundreds of lavender-colored octopuses nestled among rocks and a few clinging to the robots.  

It’s called the “octopus garden” in honor of the Beatles song. But also because octopuses bury the shells of the animals they eat like underwater gardners. 

King says the garden is a nursery to over 1,000 female octopuses who are brooding.  

“So brooding is essentially taking care of their eggs. It's almost like a bird in a nest, nesting their eggs. So they protect them because these eggs most likely would be preyed upon by shrimp and other creatures,” King said. 

In fact, a highlight clip captured a face off between a newborn octopus and a shrimp.

 

Female octopuses come here to lay and take care of their eggs. The moms die soon after.
Credit Erika Mahoney

King says this is only the second cluster of brooding octopuses ever found and by far the largest. It’s located about 50 miles off the coast of San Simeon in the Davidson Seamount Management Zone. The Seamount is an extinct volcano that last erupted about 10 million years ago. It’s also home to corals and sea sponges the size of sofas. The zone was added to the protected Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2008.

 

The octopus garden was first discovered in 2018 during the tail end of an expedition. King was onboard and describes the moment as a slow realization. They kept running into more and more octopuses. 

“And that's when it really hit us. This is special. This is unusual. We need to know what's going on here,” King said.

And that’s been the mission of this trip, to figure out why these octopuses are congregating here. The underwater robots took samples from the area and collected temperature readings. King says they’ve discovered that warmer water is seeping out of the seafloor here. You can even see it shimmering in the video footage sometimes, like when asphalt shimmers on a hot summer day.

“So there's something going on there. There's some relationship attracting the octopus to these areas,” said King. 

The public was also able to ask questions about the garden via Nautilus Live. Questions came in from around the world. Amity Wood, Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, was also onboard. She says they video chatted with students from across the U.S. 

“Usually we get our science through produced documentaries or scripted television shows. But in this case, it's, you know, unfiltered livestream science,” Wood said. 

During the expedition, scientists also captured video footage of this whale fall.
Credit NOAA

The team onboard also captured footage of a dumbo octopus, a flapjack octopus and a whale fall. A whale fall is a whale carcass that’s sunk to the ocean floor and provides nutrients for all kinds of creatures.

 Although the six day trip has wrapped up, people can still view highlight videos on Nautilus Live and all of the video footage will be uploaded to YouTube.