Writings : On The Seabed A Human Eye Is Watching Us…

On The Seabed, a Human Eye Is Watching Us…

It is difficult to know how much truth there is in an account of a couple of lines made by an information bureau: it was telegraphed from North America that a young woman collecting shells by the seaside had been carried off by a large octopus, before the horrified eyes of her powerless family. Even the name of her cousin by marriage was mentioned; he was called Brown, therefore it must be true.

Victor Hugo in Les Travailleurs de la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea) introduces a giant octopus. This is a fantasy story. However, it still seems more plausible than the first story.

There are enormous cephalopods alive today. They have been seen, their fighting has been seen, people have been able to seize hold of a tentacle, a squid’s arm, beached creatures have been photographed (a 6-metre cuttlefish); they have even been given nice names (architeuthis). In short, they exist, and if an animal of this sort found its way into the lounge on an ocean liner, there would be some confusion. But none has ventured towards the coasts, except as a carcass, and what can be found most often there are specimens which vary in size according to whether they are seen in water or out of water, stretched out or retracted, measured with or without their tentacles, and according to the optimism or pessimism of the observer.

Take an animal which, out of water, alive and fully extended, measures thirty centimeters: the common octopus; doubling this we get to sixty centimeters: a fine specimen. This animal’s strength lies in its suckers, in the power of its eight tentacles (secondarily, the parrot-like mouth found in the center of the crown of tentacles, can break up and rip up the hardest objects). But it needs a support – a rock to flatten itself onto – in order for its traction to work; in the middle of the water, its only power comes from backward leaps, caused by water which is projected forwards by the contraction of a tube located under its body.

Now consider it in its nest: a hole lined with stones, where it spreads itself out after squeezing through the tiny opening (it can flatten itself out to pass through a window which is only slightly ajar and fall onto the road, greatly surprising anyone there).

Sometimes, professional deep sea divers can be inconvenienced by octopuses; one, before cleaning the offshore sewers of a town in the Côte d’Azur always takes along a rubber syringe filled with tobacco juice; once he has descended to his place of work, he sends a jet of this juice over the various octopuses lurking in the corners and they all flee, tentacles all over the place.

Before tearing the quivering flesh of an octopus into shreds, we should not forget the extraordinary creature, which it represents, a creature which, even although zoological classification has put it next to the oysters, is nonetheless the only animal in the world to possess an eye similar to that of mammals, indeed of humans. It is not just the eye’s colour changes, revealing intimate feelings in pulses of light – maybe blue for fear, red for anger, black for envy; it is the eyelids which give it such a sensitive and varied look, compared, for example, with the stupid expression of a fish, due to the fixedness of its eyes, a permanently horror-stricken expression if the eyes are round, permanently fierce if they are elongated.

The octopus has not yet had its day as a pet. However, it can show gratitude and it can recognize you: if you put a rotten egg in its aquarium, it will throw it right back in your face … And as for its fierce tentacles, once they have been beaten and skinned, what a delicious substitute for coquille saint-jacques or even lobster.


Jean Painlevé, "Au fond de la mer, un oeil humain regarde…" originally published in Messidor, 18 March 1938.