Bald eagles are excellent hunters. They can swoop alongside a cliff and snag a mountain goat or nose-dive toward a river to catch a salmon. This week, however, one hungry eagle may have bit off more than it could chew when it misjudged the size of its unlikely target, a giant Pacific octopus. When the eagle dove in to tried to pull the octopus out of the water, it instead got plucked out of the sky.
Lucky for us, salmon fishermen in British Columbia caught the aftermath on camera.
Alisha Ebrahimji at CNN reports that a group of salmon fishermen employed by Mowi West salmon farms near Quatsino on the northwestern shore of Vancouver Island were motoring home when they heard screeching and splashing. Crew member John Ilett says when they stopped to investigate, they found the battle in progress, with “a full-sized eagle submerged in the water with a big giant octopus in the water trying to drag it down.”
“We weren’t sure if we should interfere because it is mother nature, survival of the fittest," Ilett says. “But it was heart wrenching—to see this octopus was trying to drown this eagle.”
CBC’s Bridgette Watson reports that the crew did decide to intervene. While one of his crewmates recorded, Illet grabbed a pike pole and peeled the octopus off the raptor. “That gave the eagle just enough time to break free and swim to shore,” Illet tells her.
The octopus dove down into the water while the eagle sat on a branch on shore for ten minutes, drying off and regaining its composure, before returning to the skies.
The giant Pacific octopus is the largest octopus in the world and can reach 600 pounds and 30 feet in length. On average, however, they weigh in at around 110 pounds. The eagles weigh between 6.5 and 14 pounds.
Jennifer Mather, a cephalopod expert at the University of Lethbridge, is naturally on team octopus. “He [Illet] deprived the poor octopus of a good meal,” she jokingly tells Leyland Cecco at The Guardian.
Octopuses, she says, are generalists, meaning they will eat almost anything available, even if it’s covered in feathers and has big talons. “They’re quite wide in their prey choice,” she says. “If something is on the surface of the water, and the octopus is close to the surface of the water, it’s food.”
In fact, this is not the first time an octopus has grabbed a bird for dinner. In 2012, another person on Vancouver Island took a series of pictures of an octopus gobbling up a gull.
Finding a bald eagle swimming in the water isn’t unprecedented either. The eagles hunt for fish in open water, swooping down and grasping their meal in their powerful talons. But, sometimes, if they hook into a fish that is a little too large to fly off with, they’ll opt to hang onto their catch and swim it back to shore, using the bird version of the breast stroke, reports Merrit Kennedy at NPR. Other times, the birds mistime their attack and end up in the water, forcing them to swim to shore.
Illet tells Ebrahimji that over 20 years on the water he’s seen lots of interesting things, but this is the coolest. “It’s moments like this why I love my job and being out in the environment where I can work and live,” he said. “It's just amazing.”