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Dive Photo Guide


Australian Octopus Paradise: Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula
By Sam Glenn-Smith, May 31, 2024 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

A small blue-ringed octopus swimming through the water column—a not uncommon mode of locomotion for the species

Octopuses are among the most beautiful, charismatic, colorful, strange and alien animals that we can encounter underwater. There are so many nuances to octopus behavior and appearance that makes them so desirable to photograph. Southern Australia, and in particular, my home region of the Mornington Peninsula, is an octopus hotspot. The recently released National Geographic and Disney Plus documentary “Secrets of the Octopus”—for which I was incredibly fortunate to be a dive guide during the South Australia segments—merely scratched the surface of the Mornington Peninsula.

Established as an octopus kingdom, we were introduced to five incredible species of octopus from the area—all of which are so stunningly unique and incredible in their own fascinating ways. Living and working in an octopus paradise allows me to dive and photograph these incredible creatures numerous times a week, and not a day goes by that I do not fall in love with each and every octopus I see. I am pleased to present the fantastic and spectacular octopuses of the Mornington Peninsula.

A curious pale octopus reaching out to inspect the photographer’s camera


Pale Octopus (Octopus pallidus)

Size: 45–60cm
Habitat: Shallow seas—reef, rubble and intertidal zones
Diet: Small crabs and crustaceans
Range: Temperate seas around southern Australia

The pale octopus is one of southern Australia’s more common octopus species. Aptly named for its lighter coloration, the pale octopus is, nonetheless, a master of shapeshifting. It can change from smooth skinned and lightly colored to a stunning mosaic pattern of browns and reds in a split second, while raising papillae in their skin to create a bumpy or spiky texture.

The pale octopus is what I like to refer to as a “homemaker” octopus. Most often found in their dens, they spend a large amount of time cleaning and maintaining their homes in preparation for mating and egg laying.

We are incredibly lucky on the Mornington Peninsula to have a number of purpose-built artificial reefs that are inundated with pale octopuses. The establishment of these reefs has meant continuous habitat for this species, immune to environmental changes. As a result, we have witnessed some incredible behavior from the local pale octopuses.

From the summer months on into the colder months of autumn, the pale octopuses reach maturity and begin to mate. Having a reliable and consistent location means that I am fortunate to be able to visit them on an almost a daily basis and experience fantastic behaviors firsthand. From males displaying for females, to fighting and competition between individuals, to mating and egg laying, the pale octopus is one of the few octopus species that allows divers to see a full octopus life cycle. They may be common, but pale octopuses are a treat to see each and every time, and their charismatic personalities make them a perpetually interesting subject to photograph. 

A male pale octopus performing a mating display for a nearby female


PHOTO TIP: A little patience goes a long way with pale octopuses. A photographer who can bide his or her time may be rewarded with fantastic behaviors. Pale octopuses are a larger species and quite curious so wider angle lenses will be beneficial when photographing them. Everything from fisheyes to wide-angle zooms will work well.


Maori Octopus (Macroctopus maorum)

Size: Mantle up to 60cm; arms up to 3m
Habitat: Shallow to moderate seas—reef, rubble, intertidal zones and deeper water to 500m
Diet: Small crabs and crustaceans
Range: Temperate seas around southern Australia and New Zealand

The second-largest species of octopus in the world and the largest in Australia, the Maori octopus is a large, powerful, and majestic octopus species. Typically, they are dark red in color with smooth, speckled white skin and long, uneven arms that grow up to three meters in length.

Maoris are typically found hidden in their dens, but whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter them out and about on the hunt, they are a species to be marveled at. With suckers the size of tennis balls, the Maori octopus is a goliath of the shallow waters of temperate Australia. While it can’t match the more famous giant Pacific octopus in terms of sheer strength, they are certainly strong enough to steal a diver’s camera, or even to suffocate a dolphin—yes, there is a documented case of this!

Despite their potentially fearsome capabilities, similarly to blue-ringed octopuses, they are typically quite shy. Rare interactions outside of the den are typically calm and breathtaking to watch, as it threads its long arms into every crack and crevice of its habitat in search of a meal. Maoris are regularly seen “parachuting” over areas that may contain a crab or a fish, its main source of prey. Parachuting is when the octopus will suddenly pounce on a particular spot and flare out its arm webbing to ensure that nothing can escape. Maori octopuses are a challenging octopus species to photograph as they are so rarely encountered outside of their dens. If a photographer is lucky enough to encounter this fantastic cephalopod out on the hunt, it is a thrilling and humbling experience and not one to be taken for granted.

The beautiful and beastly Maori octopus, out on the hunt over a sandy seabed


PHOTO TIP: Maori octopuses can be especially difficult to photograph, largely because they are so infrequently seen out and about. Wide-angle lenses are most useful as these are big octopuses. If you have a friendly or curious Maori, a fisheye will serve you best in order to get close while still fitting the big cephalopod in the frame.


Southern Blue-Ringed Octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

Size: 10–12cm
Habitat: Shallow seas—reef, rubble and intertidal zones
Diet: Small crabs and crustaceans, and fish
Range: Temperate seas around southern Australia

Perhaps the most well-known octopus species on Earth, certainly the most venomous, and my personal favorite octopus species, is the blue-ringed. This octopus is considered high on the bucket list of many an underwater photographer, not only for its stunning and vibrant coloration, but the appeal of photographing one of the most toxic animals on the planet—this tiny creature stores enough venom at a time to kill 26 full-grown, healthy humans!

The southern species, found in Australian waters, is a giant compared to the tropical Indo-Pacific species, growing to five or six times as large. While impressive, the blue-ringed is much more of a flight than fight critter. They are reclusive and shy and prefer to emerge only under cover of darkness to hunt for prey.

I am fortunate to regularly dive with and photograph blue-ringed octopuses, yet I still get a massive thrill each and every time I encounter one. While their namesake rings are what the species is known for, typically they are gray or beige or yellow in color. It is not until the octopus is excited, aggravated, threatened, or curious, that they display their stunning blue rings. When they fire up the rings, they become, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful animals on the planet.

Blue-ringed octopuses live predominantly in rubble and sand environments, where they hide in empty shells or rock crevices until ambushing their unfortunate prey. The octopus stabs through a crab’s exoskeleton with its parrot-like beak, and the venom flows, rapidly paralyzing their prey and allowing the blue-ring to feed leisurely. 

Photographing these incredible little octopuses is always such a thrill both because of their incredible beauty and their elegant movements. Long arms reach forward and upward as the octopus flashes its rings while on the prowl. Despite not being an aggressive animal, one must always take caution and not handle or stress a blue-ring, as they will defend themselves. Sit back, observe quietly, and be treated to a show by one of our oceans’ most amazing cephalopods.

The world’s most venomous octopus, the southern blue-ringed octopus, strolling across the sandy seabed at night


PHOTO TIP: While blue-ringed octopuses are generally thought of as small, the southern species can get quite big (for a blue-ring), up to the size of a human hand. Shorter focal length macro lenses will do well as you can get closer while still fitting the entire octopus in the frame. They are quite sensitive to light, so you may need to be patient until they get comfortable with you. If they are bland, wait a bit. Blue-rings on the hunt will get excited and flash those iconic rings.


Sand Octopus (Octopus kaurna)

Size: 8–10cm mantle length with extremely long arms (3–6x mantle length)
Habitat: Shallow seas—sand, mud, and seagrass beds
Diet: Small crabs and crustaceans
Range: Temperate seas around southern Australia

One of the stranger octopuses of southern Australia, the sand octopus has an incredibly unique characteristic: Unlike almost all octopus species found on Earth, the sand octopus is incapable of changing color. Evolution did not leave them totally high and dry, however—though it sort of did. Sand octopuses not only have the ability to disappear incredibly quickly below the substrate, but they can, and will, spend time nearly or fully out of the water, hunting crabs and small fish along the shoreline.

Their burrowing ability is remarkable: They can vanish seemingly in the blink of an eye, thanks to a specially adapted mucus coating and an oversized siphon which allows it to blast water into the sand, making escape downwards much easier. When fully underground, the sand octopus will create a “chimney” to allow it to breathe while remaining hidden until the danger is gone. The species has a strong aversion to light, which makes them incredibly tricky to photograph. In most circumstances, when I chance upon a sand octopus out hunting, I can fire off about three or four shots before it starts to burrow. However, with the knowledge of their burrowing ability and a little bit of preparation, this disappearing act can make for some incredibly unique and breathtaking natural behavior shots—you just have to be ready for it!

A stunningly colored sand octopus beginning to bury itself in the sand

A sand octopus dances just above the bottom during the darkness of night


PHOTO TIP: Sand octopuses are one of the more difficult species to photograph. They are very skittish and disappear into the sand at the first hint of light or potential danger. While the mantle is quite small, their arms are extremely long and spindly. I find medium focal length lenses or shorter macro lenses to be useful for photographing the entire animal. However, seeing as they can be skittish, long macro lenses can also be useful to fire off some shots from a distance before your quarry vanishes.


Southern Keeled Octopus (Octopus berrima)

Size: 10–20cm
Habitat: Shallow seas—reef, rubble and intertidal zones
Diet: Small crabs and crustaceans
Range: Temperate seas around southern Australia

I like to think of the southern keeled octopus as southern Australia’s answer to the coconut octopus of the tropical Indo-Pacific. They are curious and charismatic and display similar traits to the coconut. Keeled octopuses are most often found in shallow, rubble patches, particularly those that have a good amount of discarded scallop shells and human litter.

This charming species, with its long and gangly eyes sitting atop stalks, will watch divers and predators from the confines and safety of its den. They seem quite curious and will often peer out of, or even partially emerge from, their dens to see what all the fuss is about. (Sometimes I even think they enjoy the attention they get from photographers!) When I am fortunate enough to find a southern keeled octopus scouring the seafloor on night dives in search of a meal, they display all sorts of interesting behaviors, from color and texture changes, to interactions between keeled and other species or amongst different keeled individuals. They are an ever-reliable and never-dull octopus to photograph and dive with.

The southern keeled octopus is a curious species, evidenced by this individual peering out of an old paint can to observe the photographer

A pair of keeled octopuses engage in a mating ritual—despite how it may look!


PHOTO TIP: Keeled octopuses are among the most fun species to photograph! They are incredibly curious, charismatic, and will showcase a wealth of interesting behaviors if you choose to spend time with them. Again, wider macro lenses or midrange zoom lenses will serve you well with this species, as they are not diminutive. Often they can be found living in trash, which allows for images that tell a story, so don't shy away from an octopus that is living in a can or a bottle.


Final Thoughts

Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula truly is one of the world’s best octopus diving destinations. With a plethora of underwater habitats conducive to octopus diversity, it is no wonder it is an octopus hotspot. There are likely even more species to be found and identified in these chilly waters. So many stories remain untold of these most fantastical of cephalopods and the only way to learn about them is to get out there and search for them. The secrets of Mornington Peninsula’s octopuses remains open-ended for divers, photographers, videographers and octopus lovers alike!

Hiding in an old glass bottle, a southern keeled octopus is tucked in nice and cozy


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