Seattle may be known as the cultural center of the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t mean that their industrial neighbors don’t know how to party.
The Puget Sound region has a long history of diving, especially the city of Tacoma. The Sound is an incredibly rich marine ecosystem and many different animals live here, such as harbor seals and orca whales. There’s a lot to see. This includes the giant Pacific octopus, the worlds heaviest octopod. They especially like to congregate in the Tacoma Narrows, the site of the infamous bridge Gallopin’ Gertie.
In the middle of the twentieth century a bunch of divers started a sport known as octopus wrestling. This apparently started out of an unorthodox fishing method created by a man named O’Rourke. He would use himself as live bait to capture octopi. This evolved into a popular recreational activity wherein athletes would dive into shallow water, reach into grottoes, and haul struggling octopi to the surface.
This wasn’t exactly a straightforward fight. As the writer H. Allen Smith pointed out: “it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus; [O’Rourke] knew full well the futility of trying for a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches.” The trick was keeping the octopus from escaping. The only actual wrestling came when you had to pull the animal out of its cave. “They have good suction, but if you get their arms, and pull, the suction cups go pop, pop, pop. They don’t have a lot of holding strength,” says Gary Keffler, former professional octopus wrestler.
This fad came to a head in the national competitions held in the 1960’s. For the first contest organizers weren’t sure whether the contest would work and prepared a few dummy victims just in case. They didn’t need to worry. Five thousand people watched as 111 divers, some in teams, some alone, brought up twenty surprised octopi. Points were awarded for weight, one per two pounds of octopus (double if you dove without a respirator). The biggest prize weighed in at a whopping fifty-seven pounds.
Some of the octopi were eaten, but many were either set free or donated to the Seattle Aquarium, carried in portable tanks. The official contests were held for a couple more years before the novelty wore off and Puget Sound thrillseekers moved onto different activities.