World Octopus Wrestling Championships Once Attracted Audience Of Thousands To Shores Of Tacoma

May 20, 2017

There’s a popular urban legend that a 600-pound octopus lives beneath the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Over the years, divers have alleged it dwells in the ruins of Galloping Gertie. Some speak of giant tentacles emerging from the depths.

There’s no proof to back up the stories, which have persisted much longer than the normal 4-year lifespan of a Pacific Octopus.

But there is proof of a spectacle that sounds nearly as bizarre and involved not one but dozens of giant Pacific Octopuses, which are native to the Puget Sound region (though they are called giant, they usually weigh somewhere between 50 and 90 pounds, not 600.) In the early 1960s, thousands of people turned out on the shores of Titlow Beach near the Tacoma Narrows for the World Octopus Wrestling Championships.

Divers with the largest catch of the 1963 World Octopus Wrestling Championships, a 57-pound North Pacific Giant Octopus. Gary Keffler is at center with the winning team.
Credit Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8251364

“It was something to do I guess, go out and ‘rassel an octopus,” said Gary Keffler, now in his early 80s and one of the co-founders of the event. He says the idea came from members of a local diving club he was part of, called the Puget Sound Mud Sharks.  They organized local events and competitions with things like spear-fishing.

“Since we had the largest octopus in the world in shallow water, we decided it might be a nice event to try and run and do – and we did. Turned out pretty good,” Keffler said. “It’s a challenge. So from that challenge we turned it into a contest.”

Octopus wrestling wasn’t anything like the kind of strong-man spectacle you see on TV these days. Divers would go into the water in teams and basically do their best to pull an octopus from the water. There were two categories, one if you used scuba gear and one if you free dove. You got two points per pound without the gear, one point per pound with it. Whoever wrestled the biggest octopus out of the water won the trophy. Keffler says most of the animals they pulled out weighed 50-60 pounds and measured between 7-12 feet across. He says they weren’t very strong, but you had to watch out for their tentacles.

“You had to be just a little bit careful about them grabbing your mask or getting ahold of your hose – those days we had two-hose regulators and they could crimple it – tighten it up so the air would be cut off a little bit,” Keffler said. “They don’t have the strength, they can’t come up and squeeze you, but they can hang on tight with the suckers on their tentacles.” 

But he says you could pull lose easily. And the octopuses weren’t very fast, so it really wasn’t very dangerous.

The championships were televised and some reports say up to 5,000 people showed up to watch more than 100 divers compete. That may be what captured the attention of Jacques Cousteau, who filmed part of a 1971 documentary called "Octopus, Octopus" here, with the help of Keffler and his wife, Joanne Duffy. The film definitively laid to rest age-old myths of the octopus as a monster of the deep and marked a turning point in attitudes. Conservation values took hold and in the mid-70s state law made it illegal to harass seafood without an intent to eat it.

Nowadays it’s pretty much unthinkable that a spectacle like octopus wrestling could take place (case in point, the 2013 incident with amateur hunter and art student Dylan Mayer, which led to a ban on octopus hunting in popular dive areas around Puget Sound.) Keffler says they didn’t hurt the animals and gave most of them to aquariums; their goal was to increase interest in diving. And when asked how he feels now and what he respected most about these once much-maligned creatures, he said they were just amazing to look at.

“I think their beauty and their fluid movements, the way they swim – beautiful to watch moving in the water. It’s interesting: they change colors to match their surroundings,” Keffler said.

He says he agrees now with the   prevailing attitudes and local laws protecting octopuses.

“There’s no reason, unless you were going to get them for food, to harm them or take them," he said. "So why bother hurting something that isn’t hurting you?”

And as for the urban myth about the 600-pound giant beneath the Tacoma Narrows?

“I never ran into it, so I couldn’t say,” Keffler said.  

This story originally aired on Dec. 10, 2016