Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
I used to go diving a lot. Not so much anymore, but a couple years ago I was really into it, had my license and everything. It’s really beautiful down there: the pale patterned sand, the water washing away the distance like a blue mist, and flashes of the brightest colors you’ve ever seen as some fish darts into view. I’ve done my share of exploring wrecks and grottoes, but my favorite thing to do is hover right where the shelf plunges into the deep. You get the greatest dynamics there as deep-sea creatures come up to feed.
Anyway, one time I was drifting along near Antigua about 40 feet down. I had two tanks with me so I could stay down for several hours. The shelf sloped off to my left and rocks and coral broke the monotony of the sand to my right. I hadn’t seen much that day and was getting a bit bored, but then I noticed a large octopus. It was a deep-sea type, probably washed up accidentally (they don’t usually come up to hunt). It seemed sluggish and didn’t react much when I drifted over to it.
Now, octopuses aren’t very friendly creatures; if you manage to get near one they usually flee within seconds. I’m sure you’ve seen videos of them changing colors to match their environment. Not all species can do that, but they’re all very good at hiding. So seeing a deep-sea octopus up close was quite an opportunity. It was about a foot from crown to beak and dark mottled green. Its tentacles curled around it, perhaps four feet long when extended and pale on the underside. Its eyes looked like golden rings around narrowed black pupils. It was having trouble moving and looked half dead.
I decided to try to get near it. There were some yellowtail jacks nearby and I speared one with my knife. Sorry if that offends you, I’m not one of those “touch nothing” divers. Cautiously I approached the octopus and offered it my fish, shoving it out ahead of me and letting it drift toward the creature. Success! It didn’t run, but lazily reached an arm out to capture the morsel. It brought it under its beak and began to devour it. I drifted closer, trying to acclimate it to my presence.
Over maybe half an hour or so it became more lively and used to my presence. Apparently I had bought its tolerance with my offering, and it even began to play a little bit, darting away from me and then back. I had a stick with me that I used to test holes and mud and such, and it occurred to me that maybe I could teach it to play fetch. I brought the stick out and waved it until it seemed like I had its attention, and then threw the stick out sideways. It didn’t go very far underwater, of course, but the octopus went after it and grabbed hold with its tentacles. It didn’t seem inclined to return to me, though, so I swam closer. It was waving the stick at me, and then it tossed it out to the side. It was copying me!
I retrieved the stick and then an interesting idea came into my head. Next to us was a large flat rock covered in half an inch of mud and detritus. Careful not to disturb the layers, I took the stick and slowly drew a crude figure of a man: two legs, two arms, and a round head coming off a central cylinder. The octopus seemed to be watching with interest. I tossed it the stick and it caught it easily. It sat there toying with it, and for a few moments I thought my expectations had been too high. But then it reached out with the stick and began tracing its own mark in the mud. It was even cruder than mine, to be sure, but clearly drawing. However, the proportions were all wrong. It had fused the head and the body into one ball, and there were too many legs. I was just happy it was copying me; I’d heard octopuses were smart, but this was really something. But then, it hit my like a freezing wave: the octopus wasn’t copying my drawing, it was drawing itself!
The implications for this were huge. If I’d had a video camera then, I would be a famous man today. The only other animal I’m aware of that’s capable of the imagination and self-awareness to do something like that is the ape, first cousin to humans. That the ancient octopus, without so much as a spinal column, had the mental capacity for such a feat would surely have turned biology on its head. However, I didn’t have a camera, and the scientists I’ve told my story to greet it with understandable skepticism. I would put all my time into trying to prove it myself, but I just can’t bring myself to go diving any more.
Anyway, once that realization struck, I got excited. The octopus passed the stick back and I began drawing other sea creatures and common sights. We kept on for maybe an hour, and the octopus contributed as much as I. It even drew something I took to be a crude figure of a submarine, with a con tower, propeller screw, and even torpedo holes. Finally, the octopus led me to the other side of the rock, a blank canvas. Far down in the corner, it again drew itself and then me. These figures were very small, maybe an inch or two tall. Then, painstakingly, it went to work on a much larger drawing. At first, I thought it was a whale, but whales are roughly of a size with submarines, so it didn’t seem to justify the scale. Furthermore, the proportions were all wrong: this seemed like something more humped and compact, almost as if it were upright rather than aqualine. And it had weird bits sticking out of out that didn’t seem like fins. I couldn’t place it. An oil platform, maybe? No, the lines were too natural, and an octopus wouldn’t know what the top of a platform looks like.
When the drawing was done, we both sat and looked at it for a while. I took the stick back from the octopus and circled the drawing of us, and then drew a line to the thing. I’m not sure if the octopus picked up on my confusion, because it just sort of sat there for a while. It didn’t try to take the stick back. Then it started swimming away. I followed it at a distance. It seemed to be keeping a pace, leading me on. Then it turned and shot out into the deep area off the shelf. I was a good way through my second tank and wasn’t supposed to go any deeper, so I had to let it go. It stopped once to watch me, and then darted off, dissolving into the dark blue depths. I looked after it for a few minutes to see if it would return, but there was nothing, so I started watching the other fish and making my way slowly back to the boat.
Then, suddenly, there was a low thrumming sound all around me. It wasn’t very loud, but it was *big*, as if it came from the ocean floor itself. I’ve heard of underwater eruptions, but I’ve never been in one, and I wondered if I was about to be. But this didn’t sound like anything natural. It sounded like the call of some animal, slowed down into the virtually sub-sonic range and projected from huge speakers very far away. I’ve had a chance to look over the seismograph recordings for that day, and nothing shows up at that time for that frequency. I have no idea why. The fish were going crazy, darting back and forth and all heading inland. And not just the reef fish, larger ones from deeper in were streaming by me even faster. Suddenly, among them, the octopus appeared again. It or one quite like it. It swam up to me and eyed me strangely, then darted past with the rest. The thrumming sounded again.
Looking out to sea, I gradually became aware of a large dark patch. It was very hard to tell how big or far away it was, but there was plenty of both to go around. It was hard to tell more than just a shadow in the murky water, but it clearly wasn’t a whale or anything man-made. I couldn’t even tell if it was a single creature; there seemed to be long strands like kelp or jellyfish tentacles streaming off it, but immeasurally larger. It looked like nothing so much as an ancient, misshapen section of coral reef broke off and floating. At least the part I could see; it seemed to fade off into the distance as though that mass, immense as it may be, was only a limb to some far larger entity. I’ve never seen a naval carrier from underwater, but I imagine that’s the kind of shadow it would cast.
The thrumming rang out a third time. An unreasoning fear seized me. I didn’t appear to be in danger: though the thing was vaster than anything I’d ever seen, it was too far away to reach me quickly, and it seemed like it wouldn’t fit into the shallows, anyway. Nevertheless, I was gripped by the feeling that if I didn’t get away as fast as I could, I would be dragged down into the abyss and consumed. I could feel the very water itself drawing me down into that black maw. Heedless of the depth or my equipment, I surged upwards. As I rose, of course, I began cramping, but I clawed my way up anyway. I was still far from the boat. When I broke the surface I could barely move; I had to keep my mouthpiece in because I couldn’t keep my mouth above water. I certainly couldn’t call or signal the boat. Far from receding, my panic was worse than ever; from above the water I couldn’t see the thing or tell whether it was coming for me. I thrashed my slow, painful way toward the boat. Finally someone on board noticed my and they came to pick me up. I had the bends bad, and had to stay in a hospital for a few weeks until I was over it. The doctors tell me I was lucky not to get a stroke or some other permanent damage.
So, that’s my story. I’m sorry I can’t give a more satisfying conclusion; I still don’t know myself what I experienced. My friends think it was some form of rapture, but it just doesn’t match the symptoms; narcosis is supposed to reduce anxiety, not stimulate it. And my hallucinations, if that’s what they were, were too vivid and specific. Anyway, since then I’ve been afraid of the water. I tried going out once or twice, but all I can do is stay shaking in the boat. I think there really was something out there, and I don’t think it’s something I ever want to come across again.