Cephalopods are widely regarded as the most intelligent of all invertebrates and over 800 different species inhabit every ocean on our planet. They have evolved over millions of years to be perfectly adapted to the marine environment, and their unique ability to change shape, pattern and color in a split second fascinates scuba divers.
Rare octopuses, squid and cuttlefish commonly feature on underwater photographers critter wish lists, and the best way to find these elusive species is to go muck diving. Although some people are initially unimpressed when they arrive at a dive site consisting of only sand, rocks and even trash, this soon changes when they see new and exciting cephalopods for the first time.
I personally love the mystery of muck diving and never knowing what you might find next. Having spent last October working at Atmosphere Resort in the Philippines, I was delighted to discover that the coastline of Dumaguete is a great place to encounter uncommon octopuses and cuttlefish at that time of the year. One site in particular was so productive that I dived it over 20 times, even becoming familiar with the location of several different species that I returned to time and time again. Below is a list of my six favorite cephalopods that I photographed that month, and some tips for finding and shooting them.
Cephalopods, like this mototi octopus, make some of the most interesting and photogenic subjects
Conveniently for muck diving enthusiasts, these colorful creatures are active during the day and can often be found in sandy and rubble areas looking for prey. They use their lower arms as feet to walk about and remain incredibly camouflaged unless confronted by potential predators—or curious scuba divers. The elaborate colors they display when disturbed serve as a clear warning to other marine life: Don’t eat me—I’m poisonous!
If you spend enough time watching this strange cuttlefish, it is fairly common to see it feeding on small crustaceans with its long, light-sabre like tongue. Often, there will be more than one subject together. I recently witnessed three males fighting for the affections of one particularly attractive larger female and just days later found an empty coconut shell full of freshly laid eggs in the same area.
Using a shallow depth of field to get the background muck out of focus ensures this flamboyant cuttlefish stands out
To get decent images of flamboyant cuttlefish, the biggest challenge is separating the subject from an otherwise uninteresting background. The best way to do this is to get low and shoot up. As the cuttlefish waddle around looking for food, they sometimes rise a few centimetres away from the bottom, just enough to frame them against open water and way from the sand.
Patience is also rewarded with exciting behavior shots. If you are able to find cuttlefish eggs and make repeat visits to the same site then you may even be lucky enough to get images of tiny colorful juveniles hatching.
Fully grown adults are perhaps best shot with a 60mm lens as they can grow fairly big and are quite approachable if not harassed
Perhaps the most famous and sought-after cephalopod is the blue-ringed octopus. Although only around five centimetres across, this small creature is one of the most deadly animals on the planet. They produce a powerful toxin capable of paralyzing and killing humans—and there is no known antidote. However, the only way you are likely to be poisoned by this octopus is if you step on one, and there is no need for concern when diving with them.
What makes them such exciting subjects is, of course, the blue rings they display when threatened, giving them a psychedelic appearance that is very photogenic. They can often be found hiding in shells, or under rocks, and can be incredibly hard to find. On more than one occasion I have lost sight of a blue ring just by taking my eye off it for only a few seconds.
Small apertures help to create a nice bokeh effect while still keeping the octopus nicely in focus
Diving with an experienced guide and being patient will increase your chances of spotting a blue ring doing something dramatic. Most of the time, this golf ball-sized critter looks just like a rock and the biggest challenge photographers face is finding one in the first place!
The size of this octopus makes it perfectly suited to a 100mm/105mm macro lens. It is often difficult to get very close without the octopus swimming off, and the extra distance this lens provides means you will not disturb the subject and stand more chance of witnessing some unique behavior.
Although more common than other species, the coconut octopus, also known as the veined octopus, can still be difficult to spot. This is because they are more active at night and spend most of the daylight hours taking shelter in just about anything they can find. They will use cans, plastic cups, broken plates and empty shells and coconut husks to create a temporary home and can often be seen carrying these items around with them until they find a suitable place to hide. The best chance of seeing this octopus out in the open is during a night dive when you will find it exploring sandy and rubble areas and hunting crustaceans.
A night-dive shot of a pair of coconut octopuses taking a break from hunting
The coconut octopus is a great subject to photograph as they are inquisitive and more often than not doing something interesting. Their tendency to utilise trash and other materials makes it much easier to capture behaviour shots. They have even been known to use coconut husks to roll around the reef and escape curious divers!
If you happen to find one of these octopus during the day, chances are it will remain hidden, requiring the use of more creative techniques to get a decent image. Using the eye as a focal point and including whatever the octopus is hiding in is a good way to show viewers the subject in its “natural” habitat and create interesting patterns and compositions. A 60mm macro lens is ideal, and use a focus light to make sure the image is sharp if diving at night.
Shooting coconut octopuses is as much about the environment as the subject. Here, a coconut octopus takes refuge in a bottle
Often confused with the larger but similarly patterned mimic octopus, the wonderpus octopus was not officially described until 2006 when it was given the rather appropriate name, Wunderpus photogenicus. It is now one of the most common cephalopods on a muck diver’s wish list. Like many octopuses, the wonderpus feeds on small crustaceans and fish and can be found in rubble areas where it lives in a den below the ground. They are most active at dusk and dawn and only emerge sporadically from their burrows to hunt and reproduce.
They can be incredibly difficult to find and if approached quickly will simply disappear below the sand, never to be seen again. Although they look similar to the mimic octopus they can be easily distinguished by the stripes on their arms that continue all the way to the suckers, and the red and orange color of the body (mimics are more brown).
If you can’t get the whole of your wonderpus in the frame, focus on its amazing V-shaped eyes and blur the background with a nice bokeh effect
A fully grown wonderpus measures around 15–25cm so the 60mm macro is again the go-to lens for close-up shots. They are also a good subject for close-focus wide-angle work, as their long arms can spread out in all directions, sometimes making it difficult to capture the entire octopus in the frame with a macro lens.
Perhaps the most important thing is to approach cautiously and have your camera ready. Wonderpus are easily spooked and if you happen to just find a set of eyes protruding from the ground, it may take some time and a skilled guide to entice the octopus out of its hole. Once again, you are dealing with a creature that resides in a pretty unattractive habitat, so stay low, be patient and be sure your camera is ready if something out of the ordinary happens.
This large individual was out foraging for food when it suddenly propelled itself high into the water column and then sunk like a parachute back to the sand. I managed to capture this rare behavior because I had prepared my settings and strobe positions in advance
The mimic is another amazing octopus that is most famous for imitating a number of other venomous marine species, including sea snakes, lionfish and stingrays. Although its banded stripes indicate its own poisonous nature, it will perform elaborate displays, often pretending to be other dangerous animals when threatened.
Like the wonderpus, it lives below the ground in a sandy or muddy burrow and is hard to find out in the open. Normally, the only way to locate this octopus is to look for a pair of eyes in the sand, which can be difficult. Some guides will use a muck stick to play with the sand in front of the den, and the curious octopus will then come out to investigate.
A displaying mimic octopus needs no assistance to stand out against the muck background
Although there are several differences between the mimic and wonderpus octopuses, photography techniques for both species are very similar. Both live in holes and so it can be difficult to get a unique shot unless they can be found or enticed into the open. If this does happen though, be prepared for a special show that may be best captured with a fisheye zoom lens such as the Tokina 10–17mm. This will allow you to easily frame the entire octopus as it performs its mimicry and still give you some versatility with working distance if you need it.
If shooting portraits, be sure to focus on the eyes as any shot where the eye is not sharp is unlikely to survive the editing process
Another member of the deadly blue-ringed family, the mototi, or poison ocellate octopus, is perhaps even rarer than its more famous cousin. Instead of displaying blue rings over its entire body, the mototi can be easily identified by just two blue rings (one on each side of its body) that appear when threatened. Normally brown or beige in color, this octopus is also able to display dark brown and white stripes and will normally take up residence in discarded shells, bottles or anywhere else it can remain hidden. Once it has chosen a home, the mototi tends to stay put, making it easier to relocate than many other octopuses.
Mototi octopuses can be photographed clear of the rubble when they “stand up”
The mototi is a very photographic octopus that constantly changes its color, pattern and posture. One minute it can be brown and boring and then it will suddenly stand up on its back tentacles while alternating between flashing bright blue rings and brown and white stripes.
Mototi octopuses vary quite a bit in size, so alternating between a 60mm and 105mm macro lens provides the best results. Patience will once again be rewarded with special images, and a mototi left along for several minutes will continue with its business as if you’re not even there. It is also easier to separate this species from the muck as they often sit up on top of their chosen home and swim from one spot to the next while looking for food.
A mototi octopus shows off one its two blue rings
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