By Don C. Reed
Art by Bart Rivers
Reaching toward the ceiling of the underwater cave, the octopus mother touched something white and delicate and beautiful. Her suckered arms stroked what looked like a piece of lace from a wedding dress.
This was her egg sac, containing perhaps two hundred thousand tiny octopus eggs, all stuck together. In each transparent eggshell was a baby octopus, as big as the head of a pin.
Many of the babies were already wiggling, nearly ready to be born. The mother octopus kept the egg sac clean so that water could filter through. The babies had to breathe through tiny holes in the thin wall of the sac. If underwater dust settled onto it, the babies would not be able to breathe.
There were a lot of eggs; there had to be. After hatching, all but one or two of the babies would be eaten by fish, lobsters, sharks, and other creatures of the sea. But they would not be eaten yet, not while their mother was there to protect them.
Outside the cave were several scattered crab shells. Octopuses eat crabs by biting them, paralyzing them with poison, and then sucking and plucking out the crabmeat.
These crab shells were old. The octopus mother had not eaten in more than a week. She would not leave her babies for any reason now, not even food. She might die of hunger, but she would not leave her eggs.
Deadly Moray Eel
Night fell, and moonlight played gently into the cave. Over a ridge of underwater rock came a moray eel, a snakelike fish that loves to feed on octopus.
The moray was not large, only four feet long or so. But he was muscular under the soft, slimy skin, and his teeth were like slivers of glass.
The moray hunted equally well at night and by day because he hunted by smell, using twin sets of nostrils. Many species of morays have these double noses, which help them follow the scent that all animals leave, even underwater. A morays eyesight is not good.
Suddenly the eel twitched to one side. He had caught the scent of his favorite food. He was not sure where it had come from.
The octopus mother had very little scent now, perhaps because she had not eaten for such a long time. The eggs themselves gave off almost no scent at all.
But the moray smelled something. His long head poked around and then stopped in front of the octopus cave. He opened his jaws a little wider, taking a deeper breath. The black-edged gill holes puffed out at the edge of his lower jaw.
The moray poked his head into the cave.
The octopus mother jumped on the eel so fast that he pulled back into an S shape, out of the cave. Then the eel was rolling, twisting, snapping his teeth.
The mother was all over him, trying to plug the gill holes under his jaw. But the moray was too strong for her. Making a loop out of his body, he pushed himself through the living knot of octopus arms, scraping her off.
Instantly the eel turned and attacked. Snagging one of the octopuss legs, the moray bit down. He spun, biting off the leg.
As the moray gulped and swallowed, the octopus had one second to play her final trick of self-defense. She squirted a blast of purple ink. Looking almost like an octopus, the blob of ink hung in the water.
The eel bit the blob. But it was nothing but strange-tasting water. Where was the food? Worst of all, the ink had made the morays nose numb. He could smell nothing!
in Plain Sight
The octopus was just six feet away. After squirting her mildly poisonous ink, she had sucked a quick gulp of water. Then she jetted a short distance by shooting the water out of a tube on her underside.
Changing color to look like a rock, she held still. If the moray went back to the cave, she would fight him again.
The eel poked through the ink cloud. Once, he bumped into the octopus but did not know what he had touched. At last the eel left.
The mother went back to her babies. She stroked and cleaned the egg sac. In time, if she lived, a smaller, thinner arm would grow in place of the missing one.
Three days later, as a sunbeam entered the cave, one of the eggs broke apart. A tiny transparent octopus wriggled out. Except for its black eyes, it seemed to be made out of crystal.
Soon there was another and another beside it, then dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands. The current picked up the babies, carrying them away.
Most of them would be eaten by fish. But a few would survive. They had a chance now.
The octopus mother watched them go.