In Search of the Three-hearted Beast

Oc­to­pus hunt­ing in Greece


First, look for their sil­very eyes. And the murky holes where they nest, the way their legs sprawl out across the sway­ing sea­weed as they swish from place to place. Danai Kyr­i­aki, Greek zo­ol­o­gist, school­teacher, and diver, is de­scrib­ing how to hunt an oc­to­pus as she pre­pares to go in af­ter her pur­ple prey. She pad­dles through the blue­green Aegean, duck­ing her head be­low. At first, noth­ing is vis­i­ble ex­cept a few fish too small to eat and shelled mol­lusks stuck to rocks.

Kyr­i­aki, 26, lives in Thes­sa­loniki, Greece’s sec­ond-big­gest

city, but she re­turns of­ten to Chalkidiki, a se­ries of penin­su­las in the north, to re­con­nect with the sea. She started spearhunt­ing at 12 when her fa­ther, an ex­pe­ri­enced hunter, handed her the gun for the first time.

Away from shore, peb­bles and urchin-coated crevices give way to smooth sand and sea­weed forests. Kyr­i­aki makes a slow left turn un­til she’s par­al­lel with the beach, and points out what’s liv­ing in divots and holes in the sand—a long, brightly striped fish and sev­eral grace­ful pur­ple oc­to­puses that she’ll take aim at every so of­ten. She doesn’t shoot at any­thing un­less she knows she’ll hit it.

Be­fore he in­structed her in the art of aquatic hunt­ing, Kyr­i­aki’s fa­ther al­lowed her to pad­dle through the wa­ter be­hind him as he pointed out what was edi­ble (oc­to­puses) and what was not (moray eels). Although oc­to­pus is com­mon at the Greek table, Kyr­i­aki doesn’t know many hunters out­side a few male friends who live in other parts of Greece. She’s a rar­ity in Chalkidiki and most of Greece, as not many peo­ple—es­pe­cially young peo­ple—still take to the wa­ter in pur­suit of oc­to­pus. It’s par­tic­u­larly la­bor-in­ten­sive work for po­ten­tially lit­tle gain, and there are eas­ier ways to catch your oc­to­pus, like on a fish­ing line or in a trap.

Even af­ter Kyr­i­aki got her gun, the oc­to­pus eluded her—she wasn’t an “in­stinct hunter,” as she puts it, and her fa­ther con­tin­ued to be a look­out, swim­ming along­side, point­ing them out, and shoot­ing them for her. Three years passed un­til she found and made her first kill. Watch­ing her swoop smoothly down upon a hid­den oc­to­pus, you’d never know she once strug­gled to find her prey at the bot­tom of the sea. When Kyr­i­aki brings her catch to shore, her mother pre­pares it. Some­times it’s grilled, or boiled in wa­ter with vine­gar and olive oil. Din­ner is of­ten served at a table out­side over­look­ing the crys­tal blue of the Mediter­ranean.

Kyr­i­aki has been look­ing at this same stretch of sea and the ter­rain be­low for 20 years, and now knows where oc­to­puses are likely to gather—in a hol­low brick nes­tled on the sea floor, for in­stance. Af­ter she floats down and lines up the shot, there’s a soft pop that re­ver­ber­ates through the wa­ter. She re­turns to the sur­face in a cloud of tiny bub­bles, oc­to­pus af­fixed to the end of her three-tined spear gun. Soon, Kyr­i­aki is sink­ing again, this time to­ward a nar­row tire around whose rim pur­ple ten­ta­cles are gen­tly spread. The oc­to­pus barely has time to move.

Oc­to­puses don’t al­ways die when you shoot them, so even if you man­age to get one at the end of your tri­dent, the fight is far from over.

Kyr­i­aki pulls the an­i­mal from the wa­ter, its body stretch­ing to her el­bow, and im­me­di­ately its

In lab stud­ies, oc­to­puses have been ob­served dis­card­ing un­de­sired food (they pre­fer fresh crab to thawed squid), and tar­get­ing bright light sources and lab re­searchers with pur­pose­ful jets of wa­ter.

“In an oc­to­pus, the ner­vous sys­tem as a whole is a more rel­e­vant ob­ject than the brain: It’s not clear where the brain it­self be­gins and ends.” —Peter God­frey-smith, Other Minds

long ten­ta­cles wrap around her wrist and down her arm, shim­mer­ing pur­ple and green in the sun. It spews ink, spurt­ing a bloody brown onto her snorkel mask. Once the fight is over, she cuts the head at the crease where its ten­ta­cles are at­tached, flips it in­side out, and tosses out a gray mass of guts. When they fi­nally loosen, the ten­ta­cles fall away from her wrist to re­veal a ten­dril of suc­tion cup–shaped bruises. She drops her prize into a mesh bag slung around her waist.

This is a par­tic­u­larly good hunt­ing day, Kyr­i­aki says. There are three oc­to­puses in her bag, which is more than she shot in her first seven years of hunt­ing com­bined. She didn’t hit her stride un­til the sum­mer she turned 21, when her fa­ther passed away. That sum­mer, she hunted them more eas­ily and brought her tally up to seven.

Danai Kyr­i­aki, a zo­ol­o­gist and oc­to­pus hunt­ing en­thu­si­ast, spots her prey in a crevice near the ocean floor.

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