An Unforgettable Octopus Encounter

An Octopus displays its wide range of camouflage techniques in his garden under the sea...
By Bryan Chu

I spent a few days diving in the clear, temperamental waters of Nusa Penida, Bali*. The main draws to Nusa Penida are the big things: manta rays and mola mola. One morning we dove a site called Manta Bay, which is, of course, known for mantas. The visibility wasn't great, as usual at manta dive sites. Although these oceanic wanderers frequent the site, and we had seen some really big ones the previous day at Manta Point, after 40 minutes of fruitless searching Manta Bay, we had seen a grand total of 0. We had come for an amazing performance, but the main act appeared to be a no-show (what is this, a Guns N' Roses concert?).... 


*You can read all about diving Nusa Penida here – and yes, it really should be on every diver’s bucket list! 

The Opening Act: A Turtle and a Shark

Then, all of a sudden, we had some action! As we came around a corner, our dive guide spotted some unexpected friends, a bamboo shark and a hawksbill turtle hanging out together in a small cave. They weren't too shy, and allowed me to get nice and close.

Bamboo shark and hawksbill turtle sharing a small underwater cave.

At the very least, we had an opening act for the performance. But where was the main act? Here we were, beers in hand, chanting for the mantas, but they were nowhere to be seen. (By the way - the beers were figurative - never drink and dive!)

The Headliner...An Octopus?

After taking a picture of this odd couple, I looked up and spotted a relatively large octopus crawling across the rocks. As I swam over to it, he crawled into a hole, peering out at me with one eye. As there were still no mantas to be seen, I figured I might as well try to get a few photos, but didn’t expect to get anything particularly good. So I went about adjusting my camera settings and strobes to see if I could get a shot of the octopus in the rocks, with the sun shining down from above. 

Next thing I knew, the octopus emerged from his hole and perched on the rocks right in front of me. It was like he wanted his picture taken! I frantically signalled my dive buddy and dive guide over so they could be part of the action, and fired away with some test shots to get my exposure and strobes right. The dive guide reached us first, and I positioned her behind the octopus. Completely unperturbed, he started the first act of his show, making his skin mottled and spotty!

Octopus perching on the rocks with spotted skin and with one diver behind.

Act 2: Master of Camouflage

In my excitement I had bumped one of my strobe's power switches, so I was only firing with one strobe. I quickly fixed this, and closed my aperture to bring a bit more detail out of the sun. My dive buddy reached us at this point, so she got to partake in the impromptu show as well. Now that he had a serious audience, clustered in around him, he really took the show up a notch. Wanting to show off all of his abilities, he made his skin really bumpy and ridge-y, looking very much like the rocks he was sitting on. 

Octopus perching on the rocks with rocky camouflage and with two divers behind.

By this point we were so thoroughly engrossed that an army of mantas could have flown overhead, and we would have paid them no heed. This guy had some real charisma! 

What is so neat about octopus (octopodes is the technical plural) is that they are incredibly intelligent. This guy had already analyzed us and figured out we were no threat to him, so here he was putting on a show with his camouflage coloring. It felt like he was watching us, and wanted to see how we would react, to see if we could communicate. Of course, there was no way to change our skin color from that of plain black wetsuit neoprene - boring!

Act 3: Camouflage is Overrated

As we sat enjoying the spectacle, he moved into act 3 – the red phase. This involved getting rid of all the bumps and rock coloring, and instead taking on a smooth, red look. I got my dive models to creep even closer so I could light them better with my strobes, got the sun in just the right spot in the corner, and took my favourite photo of the show. Now they were less than two feet from him, and I was holding my camera about 18” away from the other side. But still, he was completely unconcerned, perched on his rock.

Octopus posing on the rocks with red skin, looking at camera and at two divers behind him. Sunburst overhead.

I signalled my two dive models to make the OK signal for the next photo, but my dive buddy thought I was telling her that I was done shooting. So, she turned and swam off. I think that must have hurt the octopus’ feelings. Or maybe he was just bored of us – after all, we were just hovering there, making lots of noise as we exhaled our bubbles – three large animals very clearly out of place in his garden under the sea. Whatever the reason, he decided that the show was over, so he crawled off across the rocks, maybe in search of a tasty snack, or just in search of a more entertaining show.

Octopus crawling over the rocks with a dive model behind.

We waited for an encore, but no matter how much we clapped, he did not return to the stage. The performer had taken a few minutes to emerge, then put on his unforgettable show for about 5-6 minutes. We finished our dive without seeing any mantas, but that didn't bother us at all. This performance was a lot more unique, and I would take it any day over a manta swim-by. Though I really do love manta swim-bys!


Bryan is an editor and writer for the Underwater Photography Guide. He loves any activity that takes him out into nature, and is especially fond of multi-day hiking trips, road trips to National Parks, and diving. Any kind of diving. He discovered the joy of underwater photography on a Bluewater trip to the Sea of Cortez and has been hooked ever since. He recently finished a 1-year "radical sabbatical" with his partner Lisa (both of them quit their jobs), which included over 120 dives, mostly in Indonesia and the Philippines. His very favourite underwater experiences include swimming with humpbacks in Moorea, being smashed against the rocks next to marine iguanas in the Galapagos, marvelling at the riotously colourful reefs of Komodo, freezing his hands off under the ice in Greenland, and exploring the never-ending wonders of muck diving in Tulamben and Anilao (where he was a Bluewater photo workshop co-trip leader).

Fortunately, Bryan and Lisa managed to avoid killing each other during their year of traveling together (though at times it came close). Now they are back home in Canada, planning their wedding and doing their best to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. Their main concern at this point is finding a way to not run out of money, while avoiding returning back to their old 9-5  jobs (oil & gas, government). Oh, and also continuing to support their diving and underwater photo/video habits...

You can find more of Bryan's underwater photos on Instagram at @bryan_chu_photography and on his website at


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