A Very Angry Octopus Goes Viral After Lashing Out at an Australian Tourist

A video posted to social media captures the cephalopod’s arm-flinging attack

Octopus
A viral video shows an octopus (not pictured) lashing out at an Australian tourist in shallow water. DaugaardDK via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

On March 18, Lance Karlson was at the beach with his family in Western Australia’s Geographe Bay when he saw a slender appendage break the water’s surface and strike out at a floating sea gull. Thinking it might be a stingray, Karlson grabbed his 2-year-old daughter and his phone to video whatever wonder of nature awaited in the shallows.

But instead of a stingray, Karlson was met with a tentacle lashing from what he later dubbed “the angriest octopus in Geographe Bay” in a social media post that has now been viewed more than 300,000 times, Reuters reports.

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A post shared by Lance Karlson • Author (@lancekarlson)

In the video, when Karlson approaches, the octopod adopts a rather confrontational posture, facing the camera dead on and slowly gliding forward with its eight limbs neatly coiled. Then, to Karlson’s surprise, the octopus suddenly unleashed a multi-armed attack that sent tentacles flying out of the water and into the air.

“The octopus lashed out at us, which was a real shock,” Karlson tells Reuters via email.

Despite his professed shock, the video of the encounter is punctuated by a rather placid “Oh, golly!” from Karlson. In an interview with Daniel Victor and Heather Murphy of the New York Times Karlson says he regrets his “cheesy, almost British” reaction, but was glad he refrained from swearing in front of his young daughter.

More amused than frightened by the cephalopod's attempted swat, Karlson strapped on his goggles and ventured into the sea alone about 20 minutes later, per the Times. Around 100 feet from shore, he noticed a strangely organized looking pile of shells nestled on the seafloor.

As he swam for a closer look, Karlson felt a stinging slap on his arm and then again across his neck and upper back.

“My goggles became fogged, the water was suddenly murky and I remember being shocked and confused,” Karlson tells Reuters.

Once he got to shore, Karlson says streaks of red, stinging welts took shape across his arm, neck and back that appeared to mirror the shape of an octopus’ sucker-studded arm. The octopus, he thought, got him after all.

Karlson, a former lifeguard, collected his family and returned to their hotel room. After searching in vain for vinegar to treat the stings, he snagged a bottle of soda, which he reasoned might be acidic enough to do the trick. Luckily, Karlson’s hunch was correct, as the stinging swiftly abated after his wife poured the soda over the affected areas.

None the worse for wear, Karlson harbors no ill will towards the creature. “This was clearly the octopus’s domain,” he tells Reuters. “I am worried that people will view octopuses in a different light. They are amazing creatures that clearly have some strong emotions (just like us)!”

But if the stinging welts don’t quite sound like the work of an octopus to you, then you’re in good company. Marine biologist Judit Pungor, who studies octopuses at the University of Oregon, tells the Times in an email that octopuses “do not have venom in their suckers, and any venom they do have (in their bites, not on their arms) would not be alleviated by pouring something acidic over it.”

Pungor, tells the Times that what Karlson thought was the octopus coming back to finish the job may have actually been the work of “one of the many stinging, tentacled, jellyfish that are abundant in Australian waters.”

But the octopus does still have to answer for its shallow water show of force. According to research published late last year, this sort of aggressive-seeming behavior is not unheard of. The authors of the paper documented instances of octopuses “punching” fish that got too close for the eight-armed boxer’s liking.

Peter Ulric Tse, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College who studies octopus cognition, tells the Times via email that octopuses “can express what we would call aggression when they feel threatened or when they feel their territory is under threat.”

“My guess is that the octopus here is sending a warning meaning ‘back off,’” he tells the Times after watching the video. “Octopuses will lunge or shoot an arm out when they feel a fish, another octopus or a human is in their space. I think this is often pre-emptive aggression, meant to signal ‘don’t mess with me,’ rather than aggression seriously meant to harm the ‘invader.’”