Cuttlefish Attacks On Divers
by Steve Reynolds
I must say from the outset that I don’t want to put people off of diving with cuttlefish. It is generally a pleasure to see them during a dive. Since I always try to encourage people to keep diving despite the perceived threat of sharks, the last thing that I would want to do is to deter people from diving with cuttlefish. I do, however, consider that it is important to try to learn what causes a cuttlefish (or a shark for that matter) to attack a diver, and to do whatever it takes to prevent such an attack.
Although I have seen many cuttlefish during my years of diving (almost 30 years to date, as at 2007), I have only ever been chased just the one time by a cuttle. That incident occurred some 18 years ago during an autumn dive at Port Noarlunga South on 7th April 1989. I can only recall that a largish cuttle caused me to retreat and try to hide behind rocks a couple of times.
(I had seen a few cuttles during a short dive at Port Willunga five days earlier without incident.)
I had long forgotten about the incident at Port Noarlunga South until 2005 when my friend Dennis Hutson told me about how he had become the victim of two cuttlefish attacks. It so happened that the July 2005 issue of Dive Log featured an article about a cuttlefish attack on a diver. I can still recall Dennis’s reaction when I showed him the article at the North Haven boat ramp just prior to a dive on the Norma wreck that same month (17/7/05).
The article in the July 2005 issue of Dive Log was Sharon Gowen’s report of how she was attacked by a large cuttlefish during a boat dive at Split Solitary, near Coffs Harbour, NSW. Although I don’t know the date of Sharon’s attack, it was on a ‘brisk autumn morning’. (This matches the period of both Dennis’s attacks and mine.)
Sharon says that “a huge cuttlefish” which was “about 1m long and nearly half that wide” attacked her. This cuttle was said to be “quiet” when Sharon first encountered it at about 14m. It then proceeded, however, to follow Sharon and her two buddies as they swam away from it. When Sharon looked back at the cuttle, it was following them at a distance of 10m. It continued slightly higher than the three divers, “shadowing” them as they went along a ledge. One of Sharon’s buddies also saw the cuttle following them and thought to herself “it might be curious”.
All of a sudden, the cuttle hit Sharon with a “thud” and wrapped its tentacles “around her head, across her mask and regs”. The tentacles across her mask blinded her vision. They also pulled her regulator from her mouth. Her first reaction was to scream. She then grabbed the cuttle’s tentacles and ripped them from her head. She was able to ‘throw’ the cuttle away from her.
With her mask full of water, she searched for, and found, her regulator. Trying to resume breathing on her regulator again, she still could not see clearly. By this time, one of her two buddies had come to her assistance. The buddy held Sharon’s hands tightly and accompanied her slowly towards the surface.
Sharon was able to clear her mask during the ascent. She said afterwards that her buddy had reassured her and made her feel safe.
But let’s go back to Dennis’s two attacks. The first attack occurred at Haystack Island, Yorke Peninsula on 16th April 2005. A smallish cuttle tried to bite Dennis and he had to fend it off with his cray snare for a distance of 4 – 5m until it gave up the chase.
Less than one month later, Dennis was attacked by a larger cuttle at the Norma wreck off of Semaphore. On 15th May 2005 a 60cm-long (total length) cuttle had chased him for a distance of 30m across the wreck. Dennis had to swim hard to keep ahead of the large cuttle, clubbing it some three times on the head with his dive torch.
When Dennis and I dived at the Norma on 17th July that year, we saw several cuttles at the wreck without incident. Dennis was even able to photograph a large specimen which now features on his website
(under “Photo Galleries”, “Underwater Realm”, “Octopus and Cuttlefish”).
Cuttlefish at the wreck of the Norma, Semaphore
(taken by Dennis Hutson)
Dennis’s bad experiences with cuttlefish were not over yet. He was doing a shallow boat dive at Port Moorowie on the Yorke Peninsula, SA on 11th March 2006. It was on this autumn day that Dennis noticed that there was a small female cuttlefish at a range of about 2m. She approached him and was flashing her colours. Dennis saw this as an attack pose and he hit her away with a wave of his hand.
This did not deter her as she came back at Dennis, even angrier, so he backed away from her. He had moved a good 5m or more from where he had come across her and thought she might stop. She kept chasing Dennis so he had to hit her on the head with his cray snare. This only raised the ire within her and she attacked yet again. Dennis had to hit her extremely hard this time.
She took off to a nearby ledge and returned with a big male cuttle. This big male was flashing his colours and heading straight for Dennis, with the smaller female just behind him. Dennis had to make a ‘beeline’ straight for the boat. As he swam hard, he checked to see if they were still coming behind him. Fortunately for him, the male gave up the chase fairly easily.
An article by Dennis Hutson titled “My Story On The Nasty Cuttlefish Of SA” was published in our June 2006 MLSSA Newsletter (No.333). The article posed the question “Has anyone else witnessed this kind of cuttlefish behaviour before, where one cuttle will seek the assistance of another (bigger) cuttle to attack a diver?”.
MLSSA member Dr Brian Brock responded to the article by sending a letter and a copy of an article to the society. Brian thought that the article “Cuttlefish Behaviour” by DC Lake in the “South Australian Naturalist”, March 1986, Vol.60, No.3 answered a few questions.
Brian suggested that “Colour does not seem to be a factor in attacks” and “The acuity of vision and memory appear to be the main factors”. He added, “One could not eliminate sense of “smell” (some chemical factor). Brian suggests that “The moral seems to be, don’t razz up a cuttlefish”.
Dennis Hutson has since done further dives at the Norma and the “Barge” during the breeding season months of March and May. These two dives, however, were without any further incident. During his dive on the “Barge” on 31st March 2007, he even managed to feed a dead crab to a medium-sized cuttle of about 30cm.
During a subsequent dive at the “Barge” on 23rd June 2007, a dive buddy demonstrated to Dennis the way a cuttle reacts when a hand is placed below it. The dive buddy in question was Geoff Prince, who saw humour in dragging Dennis in close by his tank valve. He demonstrated that you can put your hand under a male and gently lift it. Dennis then managed to touch the end of the head of another cuttle. He says that the cuttles are so mesmerised by the mating ritual that you can touch them and their colours shimmer.
Dennis’s friend John later related something that he had seen during a TV show. When a (diver’s?) hand was placed below a cuttle, it would change colouration in such a way that a ‘print’ of the hand could clearly be seen through the back of the cuttle.
Michael Matthewson placing his hand below a cuttle at Rapid Bay
(taken by Michael Gosling)
NO CUTTLEFISH PATTING
Nicole Strzelecki from Adelaide Scuba Hove circulated the following email message early in July 2007: –
“I recently received an email from a concerned club member in regards to patting cuttlefish, particularly now that they are in breeding season. You may be enticed to stick your hand out and run your fingers over their soft skin, however, next time consider the consequences as it can cause the cephalopods to become distressed, as a result they do not breed and, in some extreme cases, it can result in death.”
Cuttles are generally thought to die after mating anyway, but it is best that they have the chance to breed before they die.
Nicole sent me this cuttle photo taken by Nathan Menzies (at Whyalla?). (See page 7)
An aggregation of cuttlefish (at Whyalla?)
(taken by Nathan Menzies)
The attacks on DC (David) Lake had occurred during autumn, on the Anzac Day long-weekend in 1985. They occurred during some BSAC dives off Troubridge Point on the Yorke Peninsula. They were also reported in the BSAC magazine “Diver” under the title “Hunted down by a pair of murderous cuttlefish” which was written by my old friend Bill Mildren.
Bill tells me that, according to his dive logbook, David Lake and he were diving slightly east of Troubridge Point on 25th April 1985. They were down for some 40 minutes and the maximum depth was 16m.
Bill quoted these details from his logbook: – “Very attractive drop-off and ledges. Clear clean water. Reef. Attacked by two cuttlefish. Dave was as usual collecting junk and I believe he wanted one of the cuttles for his pot. He aggravated them.”
It seems that David Lake provoked a cuttlefish by cornering and trying to grab hold of it. It retaliated by biting him on a finger, right through his glove. Bill says that he could only watch and laugh. But then another cuttle bit Bill on the hand too. David says that as they (the divers) swam away from the scene, the first cuttlefish then proceeded to stalk Bill and himself. Bill says that they were followed by both cuttles and had to fight them both off. Both divers received cuts to their hands.
David did subsequent dives with different buddies over the rest of the holiday long weekend. He suffered from further approaches by cuttlefish whereas his buddies and other divers did not.
David suggested that the cuttles “seemed unconfined by territorial boundaries”. They also “demonstrated a memory capable of retaining information over a period of days with sufficient discrimination of detail to recognize a particular diver from others wearing wetsuits, buoyancy vests and masks of the same make and colour”. They also demonstrated “co-operative behaviour between two apparently unrelated individuals” and “This co-operation was not the result of a shared threat to both animals”.
“Learning, memory and “systems of action wider than dictated by the immediate environment” (Young*) have been well documented in octopods but little has been recorded concerning cuttlefish behaviour,” he said.
* “Anatomy of the nervous system of Octopus vulgaris” by JZ Young?, 1972, Oxford University Press, NY.
Mike Scotland wrote about cuttlefish and attacks in his article “Cephalopods – Shimmering, Shredders of the Seas” in the February 2001 issue of Dive Log. He said “A Giant Sepia apama* approached (his) dive buddy (Tim) and postured at close range. It then grabbed his guage console and tried to take it back to its den. We struggled with the cuttle for several minutes before it let go of the nice shiny trophy. After the dive, we noticed that the rubber boot of the console had a 12mm gash in it left by the powerful beak.” Mike said that he himself tried to bite on the rubber console as hard as he could but he couldn’t even make a mark.
* (It is generally assumed throughout this article that the cuttlefish involved are the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, Sepia apama.)
In the same article, Mike also reports witnessing a cuttle seizing a small stargazer from the side of a larger stargazer. He said “a huge cuttle rocketed in, seized the small stargazer with lightening speed and wrapped it within the extended webbing between its arms”. It was then seen consuming the little stargazer nearby.
The book “Injuries to Man from Marine Invertebrates in the Australian Region” by JB Cleland and RV Southcott says that a small cuttlefish in NSW bit someone in the 1920s. The cuttlefish bite drew some blood. This attack occurred at Gunnamatta Bay, Port Hacking, NSW. It was reported in the article titled “Life of the Tidal Flats” by FA McNeill and T Iredale* in the Australian Museum Magazine, 2 (8), 1925. The small cuttlefish was said to be between 12.5 & 17.5cm long.
* FA McNeill wrote many papers about marine stings. Some of these papers he co-wrote with Elizabeth Pope. Tom Iredale wrote many papers about marine molluscs and their stings.
(Strangely enough, neither “Marine Animal Injuries to Man” by Dr Carl Edmonds nor the Reader’s Digest “Australia’s Dangerous Creatures” book seem to discuss cuttlefish at all.)
Tony Bramley from Whyalla Diving Services says that cuttles will sometimes latch on to shiny dive gear such as gauge guards, occys*, etc.. outside of the breeding season.
(You can understand these relatives of octopus grabbing an octopus regulator.)
Two of the incidents discussed above involved cuttles grabbing either regulators or guage consoles. I, myself, was doing a low-viz dive with Dennis Hutson at Port Noarlunga reef in the autumn month of May in 2007 when Dennis witnessed a medium-sized cuttlefish grab at the bunch of car keys clipped on to my BCD. I was too preoccupied to realize what had happened at the time. I wondered whether the cuttle believed that my keys were either something nice to eat or a nice trophy to take back to its den.
Dennis said that the cuttle was about 30cm total length and that it retreated to a small den after its unsuccessful attempt to take my car keys. At least two incidents discussed below involve cuttles grabbing at dive torches.
It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that Alex Gaut said in her article “The Amazing Giant Cuttle (Sepia apama)” (MLSSA Journal, No.11, December 2000) that “Despite their ability to produce an astonishing range of colour, it is widely believed by scientists that most cephalopods are colour-blind”.
That same month, I met Ben Gryst (of Bensa Photography & Imaging) who told me of yet another cuttlefish attack on a diver friend of one of his own friends. It seems that the diver panicked during the attack and died as a result of ascending too quickly.
Michael Matthewson offering his regulator to a cuttle at Rapid Bay
(taken by Michael Gosling)
A cuttlefish at the Rapid Bay jetty attacked Neville Skinner on 21st May 2000. Neville’s dive buddy, Nigel Muggridge was video filming during the dive when a mid-sized cuttle started to attack Neville’s wristwatch. The whole incident lasted at least five minutes and was captured on video. Neville tried everything to ward off the cuttle, including triggering his camera flash off in its face.
Here is a still taken from Nigel Muggridge’s video footage: –
Cuttle attacking Neville Skinner at Rapid Bay jetty 21st May 2000
(taken by Nigel Muggridge)
When Neville had the opportunity to, he brought out a glove that he carries with him and put it on his bare right hand to cover his dive watch. After a quick inspection of Neville’s gloved hand, the annoying cuttle then lost interest. Neville took up cave diving after this incident.
Neville showed a DVD version of the video at our July General Meeting. Both a CD and DVD copy of the video are available for loan from our Society library – mlssa nos. 8028a & 8028b.
Chris Hall recalls two incidents that have occurred between himself and an aggressive cuttlefish. Although the precise details are not known, one of them occurred during a dive at the Dredge, off of Glenelg, about 15 years ago (1992?). Chris was swimming along the portside keel of the Dredge, close to the bow. A ‘biggish’ cuttlefish grabbed at Chris’s dive torch. Chris managed to take this photo of the cuttle.
The cuttlefish that grabbed Chris’s torch at the Dredge
(taken by Chris Hall)
The other incident occurred during a Reef Watch ‘Adopt a reef’ monitoring dive at Hallett Cove reef on 29th May 2005. In that incident, another ‘biggish’ cuttlefish became aggressive whilst Chris was attempting to take photographs of something or other else.
Cuttlefish at Rapid Bay jetty
(taken by Dennis Hutson)
You may have noticed an emphasis by me that several (if not all) of the recorded attacks by cuttlefish occurred during autumn months. I can still recall a dive that I did at Wool Bay jetty on the Yorke Peninsula in April over 21 years ago. It was during my dive there on 5th April 1986 that several largish cuttles behaved aggressively towards me. They would raise two arms upwards and display a dark-reddish colouring whilst looking directly back at me, similar to the behaviour shown in the photo below.
Cuttlefish with two arms raised upwards
(taken at the Barge, Glenelg by Dennis Hutson)
In Gary Graf’s article “How I learned to get along swimmingly with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish” in GEO Magazine, March-May 1987, Vol.9, No.1, Gary said “A giant Australian cuttlefish approaching with two arms raised (is) a type of hostile behaviour not uncommon during the spring mating season”. A photo of a cuttle displaying this hostility features in the article. Graf also said that during the “spring* mating season you may also see a bit of aggression, easily recognisable as the cuttlefish moves forward with its arms held high as if about to reach out and wrap itself around you”.
* Certainly, Graf spoke of a “spring mating season”, and so does Christine Deacon in both “Australia Down Under – exploring Australia’s underwater world” and “Down Under with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish”. She mentions a spring mating season, saying that October was “allegedly the beginning of the mating season for the Australian giant cuttle”. A caption for one of the article’s photos, however, contradicts this comment by saying “The giant Australian cuttlefish is seen seasonally in Jervis Bay, appearing at the beginning of winter. Large numbers of aggressive cuttles are seen at this time when they are mating”.
Graf says that he usually sees ‘his’ cuttlefish “during the spring and summer months” because “they head for deeper water during winter”. (Although Graf seems to be from Sydney, Australia, he was a graduate of Boston University’s School of Communication.) It seems to be quite the opposite in SA though. Late May is well recognized as being the beginning of the mating season for the Australian giant cuttle. They seem to start to come in to shallow waters during autumn, in readiness for the winter breeding season. Once that the breeding season is over, they then seem to retreat back to deeper waters. Sharon Gowen’s attack at Split Solitary, near Coffs Harbour, NSW occurred on a ‘brisk autumn morning’.
Deacon says that “When (cuttlefish) raise their tentacles, divers should be careful – as they are large and their beaks may be dangerous”.
It may well be that autumn is the danger period when it comes to the possibility of cuttles attacking SA divers, as indicated by the following table: –
DETAILS OF KNOWN ‘UNPROVOKED’ ATTACKS ON SA DIVERS
* As discussed earlier, David Lake provoked a cuttlefish by cornering and trying to grab hold of it. It retaliated by biting him on a finger, right through his glove. Bill says that he could only watch and laugh. But then another cuttle bit Bill on the hand too.
These same details are grouped in to ‘months’ in the table at the top of page 11: –
As indicated in the two tables, all of the known ‘attacks’ on SA divers occurred during the three month period of March to May.
According to the July 2007 issue of the SODS newsletter (Vol.14, Issue 7, some SODS members were diving at the Dredge in March 2007 when a new diver was being “distracted by an amorous Cuttlefish that kept tugging at his torch, attracted by the light”. This new diver was also struggling at the same time to stop his mask from fogging up.
Tony Bramley from Whyalla Diving Services told me that the 2007 cuttlefish-breeding season at False Bay began on 4th May 2007. The taking of all cephalopods, including cuttlefish, from False Bay, near Whyalla, is not allowed from 1st March to 30th September each year.
Many thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of breeding cuttlefish are expected to gather near Whyalla each winter. (Some sources say tens of thousands whereas others say hundreds of thousands.)
Unfortunately, some 450,000 were harvested there about ten years ago. It was also unfortunate that two fishermen went and caught 442 of the cuttles at the protected Whyalla breeding grounds in June 2007. Authorities fortunately caught the two fishermen and confiscated their catch. The two men then faced serious fishing charges.
I sometimes recorded the odd cuttlefish sighting in my dive logbook and such recordings were often made during the autumn months. I have now scanned my logbooks for any references to cuttlefish sightings. I was surprised to find that I had written a comment about cuttlefish fighting at Stansbury jetty on 6th December 1986. Although the Whyalla cuttlefish breeding season runs from early May until (the start of?) September, I was even more surprised to find that I had written a comment about cuttlefish mating at Edithburgh jetty on 29th September 2001.
Sharon Gowens said that the “huge cuttlefish” which attacked her was “about 1m long and nearly half that wide”. According to “Australian Marine Life” by Graham Edgar, the Giant Cuttle, Sepia apama reaches a length of 800mm. One about that size would appear to be 1m long underwater.
Alex Gaut said in her article “The Amazing Giant Cuttle (Sepia apama)” that “Sepia apama . . ranks as one of the largest cuttle species in the world”. She goes on to say that they reach a length of over a metre, saying, “this measurement includes the arms and tentacles, which can stretch out to almost double the length of the animal”. She says, however, “Correct scientific measurement uses the dorsal mantle length i.e. from the front of the mantle between the eyes to the posterior tip of the mantle”.
She added that “The largest animals measured in SA had mantle lengths of ~40cm, but in NSW they have been measured up to ~60cm”. She said that “There is no explanation for this size difference, it could be different environmental conditions, or possibly different species, but the research has not yet been done to confirm or deny either of these possibilities”.
It is generally understood, as confirmed by Alex, “The largest males are always larger than the largest females”. In his article “How I learned to get along swimmingly with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish”, Gary Graf referred to a cuttle that seemed to “stretch a good 1.5m from tentacle tip to posterior point”.
Tony Bramley from Whyalla Diving Services says that he himself has seen cuttles to >3kg and almost a metre in length. He has heard of even bigger ones, which he says would have to be correct judging by the size of some of the cuttlebones that he has seen.
Two articles by Karina Hall in “Southern Fisheries” magazine (“Cuttlefish Mysteries” and “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish” both say “The giant Australian cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is one of the largest cuttlefish species in the world reaching up to 60cm mantle length and over 5kg in weight.” “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish” goes on to say “Another point of interest is that the cuttlefish found in the Black Point area were never as large as the giants recorded in other regions. The maximum size recorded for a male at Black Point was 40cm mantle length, as opposed to the 60cm monsters commonly found in Jervis Bay, NSW”.
It is fair to say then that many large cuttles will be (or appear to be) a metre or more long.
In the book “A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses of Australasia”, by Mark Norman and Amanda Reid, it says that the Giant Cuttlefish has a mantle length of “up to half a metre and a total length of one metre”.
Brad Crouch’s article about the Whyalla cuttlefish breeding season in the “Escape” section of the 17th June 2007 edition of the “Sunday Mail” said that “the biggest are about as big as a labrador” (and just as docile).
QUICK GROWTH & EARLY DEATH
It has been suggested that cuttlefish grow extremely quickly and only have a short lifespan of about 18 months. It has also been suggested that they die at about this age shortly after mating has occurred. Alex Gaut said in her article “The Amazing Giant Cuttle (Sepia apama)” that “Sick-looking animals have been observed around Black Point (the SA breeding ground) towards the end of the spawning season. Some have been observed with the posterior tip of the sepion* protruding through the mantle, causing the head and arms to droop. Once in this moribund state, the animals are incapable of withstanding rough weather and are often found washed up after storms”.
* According to Alex, the sepion is the calcium carbonate cuttlebone, the modified shell inside cuttles that allows them “to live in the water column like a fish, able to accurately and quickly control their buoyancy by changing the quantity of gas in the tiny chambers of the sepion”.
“A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses of Australasia” by Mark Norman and Amanda Reid says, “After spawning most cuttlefish die”. It also says that all cephalopods “Grow very fast . . in a year and are generally thought to be short-lived, with life spans ranging from a few months to two or three years”. It then goes on to say, however, that “some large or cold-water species may live longer” and “Most species of octopus and squid die after spawning, but other cephalopods may spawn several times”.
Tony Bramley from Whyalla Diving Services says that cuttles are ‘semelparous’, (meaning that) they, like salmon, die after spawning. He says that they will die on the spawning grounds, still trying to mate while they are dying (or dying whilst they are still trying to mate).
In his article titled “Cephalopods – Shimmering, Shredders of the Seas” (Dive Log, February 2001), Mike Scotland said, “Cephalopods have superb growth rates. Picture the largest Cuttlefish that you have ever seen, well in excess of a metre in length. It is probably only 6 to 8 months old. The rate of increase in body size is nothing short of stupendous. Super growth is a relatively common phenomenon in the marine world”.
But let’s get back to the subject of cuttlefish attacks. Gary Graf said in his article “How I learned to get along swimmingly with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish” that although he hadn’t yet heard of any divers being eaten by an aggressive cuttle, he had “seen a few divers furiously finning the other way, as if such a fate were a distinct possibility”.
Graf also described the hunting process of cuttles, saying that “moving quickly forward – the cuttlefish uses its octet of arms to engulf the victim and shovel it towards a very sharp, powerful parrot-like (upside down) beak”. He added that, to his knowledge, “no divers have yet ‘gone’ this way – but I’ve been with a few who evidently thought such a fate might be on the cards: amazing how fast one can swim when one really wants to!”
He went on to say that he had witnessed cuttlefish behaving aggressively towards a buddy but he was “never sure whether (he) was witnessing a predator bent on sampling a rubber-skinned alien, or the pass of a would-be lover”.
Could this last comment be the answer regarding the reason for some cuttlefish attacks? A successful attacking cuttle has latched on to divers’ facemasks and regulators as if attempting to lock tentacles, head-to-head, with a mate.
Tony Bramley from Whyalla Diving Services says that cuttles appear to be very preoccupied with the mating game during the breeding season and generally ignore divers completely. They have, however, bitten divers who have grabbed them (which is fair enough).
One example of such a provoked attack occurred when Bill Mildren and Dave Shaw were both diving with a UK BSAC examiner off the Yorke Peninsula (in Aug ’94?). Bill thinks that the examiner interfered with a cuttlefish and it had a go at him. Quick as a flash, Dave Shaw gave the cuttle a straight left which set it back a few feet, end of story.
INFORMATION FROM THE INTERNET
When I recently did a Google search of the Internet for “cuttlefish attacks”, the response for “cuttlefish attack”+”diver”was “Results about 376).”
Video footage of a cuttlefish attacking a diver at “The Gutter, Bass Point, NSW on 4th April 2004 (04/04/04) can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watchv=Bo53ErZgkRw&mode=related&search
for some very good video footage of a cuttlefish retaliating against a nuisance diver. It can also be found at
At some stage of my searching of the Internet, I found the web page at
which shows scuba diver Doug Pemberton being attacked on the head by a large octopus. Octopuses (and squid(s)) are also cephalopods and therefore related to cuttlefish.
According to “Observational learning does not explain improvement in predation tactics by cuttlefish (Mollusca: Cephalopoda)” by Boal J.G., Wittenberg K.M., and Hanlon R.T., “Results suggest that odor may serve as a primer for cuttlefish predatory attack behavior, perhaps by enhancing food arousal and improving attention”.
for more details about this paper.
you may be able to see a video of a cuttlefish attacking a camera.
A web page titled “Cuttlefish Mystery” by Karina Hall used to be available at
http://www.pir.sa.gov.au/pages/fisheries/rec_fishing/rec90.htm:sectID=299&tempID=10 until PIRSA updated the site. The web page described the aggregation of the cuttlefish Sepia apama at Black Point, tagging studies to determine where they come from and their complex spawning behaviour. The original source for the web page was “Cuttlefish Mysteries” by Karina Hall, “Southern Fisheries” magazine, Winter 2000, Vol.7 No.2, p.10-11.
I visited at the South Australian Aquatic Sciences Centre Library where the librarian there, Suzanne Bennett, assisted by providing me with a copy of the original article in “Southern Fisheries”. She also provided me with a copy of Karen Hall’s earlier article titled “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish” (“Southern Fisheries” magazine, Summer 1998/99, Vol.6 No.1.).
Suzanne suggested that “Cephalopod Behaviour” by Hanlon, Roger T. & Messenger, John B., Cambridge University Press, 1996 (Call no. 594.5H241) might also be of interest. The book described ‘co-operative hunting’ as “the combined action of two or more individual predators to secure prey that might otherwise escape” and went on to say that “there is no unequivocal evidence for such behaviour in any cephalopod”. The book also says that “Social organisation . . . is weakly developed or non-existent in cephalopods, except for that related to reproduction. Cuttlefish (& octopus) are basically solitary animals . . ”. It also describes reproductive behaviour as “including agonistic behaviour (i.e. the complex of behaviours that includes fighting, threat, appeasement, . . . (i.e. all behaviour that precedes and accompanies the sexual act) . . .”.
The authors of “Cephalopod Behaviour” (Hanlon & Messenger) either haven’t read David Lake’s comments “They also demonstrated co-operative behaviour between two apparently unrelated individuals” and “This co-operation was not the result of a shared threat to both animals”, or they consider either that this behaviour is “related to reproduction” or that it is “reproductive behaviour”.
Another paragraph in the book “Cephalopod Behaviour” states that “Neural mechanisms initiating reproductive behaviour in cephalopods have not been identified but a hormonal influence on maturation of the gonads has been shown”.
Wells & Wells performed experiments on octopus in 1959, which showed that the pathway of physiological control of the reproductive system is:
Light → eye → optic lobe → subpedunculate lobe → optic gland → gonad
“Cephalopod Behaviour” explains that “The first four links are neural and inhibitory, the last hormonal and excitory. When the optic gland is freed from inhibition, it releases a hormone . . . that causes the gonad to grow. In Sepia it seems that there may be more than one hormone involved”.
When I left the South Australian Aquatic Sciences Centre Library, I was able to have a quick word with Scoresby Shepherd, our Patron, about my research on cuttlefish attacks. Scoresby was surprised to hear, despite his many years of diving experience, that anyone would be fearful of being attacked by a cuttlefish. He thought that there seems to be very little on record regarding any actual injuries being caused by a cuttlefish bite, and I agreed. We also agreed that any retreating diver would probably be mostly fearful of the unknown when it came to the threat of being bitten by a cuttlefish. But what about some of the incidents reported above? David Lake and Bill Mildren, for example, were both bitten on their hands.
A few ‘provoked’ attacks have been described above, but consider this table summarising the ‘unprovoked’ attacks described above: –
I can’t say for certain that the ‘attack’ in the 1920s was ‘unprovoked’ because I don’t have any idea what may have happened. There was only one injury from all of the other incidents. Sharon Gowens could easily have suffered more were it not for the assistance of her dive buddy. The friend of Ben Gryst’s friend apparently suffered the ultimate fate when he panicked and surfaced too quickly, although this hasn’t been confirmed.
Some vital information about cuttlefish attacks came through just after the completion of this article. It came through in the form of an email message from Antony King who described some three separate attacks on two different divers during the one dive in the month of May: –
“Hi Steve, I have been chased by Cuttlefish… I think it was 12th May 2007 i.e. the start of breeding season (I think) at Seacliff Reef, entering the water at 11.30. They’re usually quite placid, but this time (on the same 100-minute long dive), one had a go at my camera, and another at my torch. I think the one that had a go at my camera was attracted to the red lens surround. It didn’t chase me, but I have a picture of lots of tentacles! The other one actually followed me for some way. I noticed it when I felt it tugging the head of my canister torch, which was hanging below me (I had neglected to clip it off). I think it was attracted to the bright blue surround of the torch. It kept following me for a while, even as I had ascended around 3-4 metres. I came to the conclusion that it was breeding season, and (that) the colours (of the torch) attracted (it). On the same dive, someone with brightly coloured fins found a cuttlefish attached (to their fin). At Seacliff Reef, I think there are less potential ‘partners’ than at Point Lowly, etc., so the Cuttlefish will try to mate with pretty much anything. Whilst it could be a bit frightening for some divers (esp. new ones), I think the easiest way to make the cuttlefish lose interest is to give it a gentle nudge with one’s fins. It also means that the diver’s face, etc.. is the furthest point from the cuttlefish.
Cheers, Antony.” Many thanks go to Antony for this information. (See picture below.)
Cuttle trying to latch onto Antony King’s camera
(taken by Antony King)
“A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses of Australasia” by Mark Norman and Amanda Reid says “Cephalopods’ mouths have a hard beak, resembling a parrot’s beak, which they use to kill or paralyse prey by injecting poisonous saliva”. (It also says that octopus “inject poisonous saliva”.) Again, it says that some cephalopods use poisons as a means of defence to protect themselves.
Aggressive cuttlefish on Seacliff Reef
(Photo by Antony King)
MORE ABOUT THEIR BEAKS
The beak of any cephalopod is part of what is called the ‘buccal mass’. The ‘buccal mass’ includes the beak, radula and the salivary system. According to the book “Cephalopod Behaviour”, “The cephalopod ‘buccal mass’ is a large and complex structure, comprising the beak with its associated muscles, the radula, the salivary papilla, the salivary glands with their ducts and the sub-mandibular gland. It lies in front of the brain, in the centre of the arms. The beak is chitinous and its musculature generally massive (Kear, 1994) so that it can be a formidable weapon, as anyone who has been bitten by a cephalopod will know”.
Further, “The radula is a toothed ribbon that moves back and forth like a rasp . . . It carries food towards the oesophagus, and in some octopods it is known to be involved in the initial stages of drilling holes in the shells of molluscs and the exoskeleton of crustaceans.
It seems, however, that the poisonous saliva mentioned above stems from the salivary papilla, which carries the duct from the posterior gland. According to “Cephalopod Behaviour”, “The essential organ for drilling . . is the salivary papilla which carries the duct from the posterior salivary gland (PSG). The papilla and the eversible tip of the duct bear small teeth and the secretions of the PSG are delivered precisely to the drilling site”.
It goes on to say that “In Sepia officinalis . . this PSG secretion contains a ‘cocktail’ of other substances, including dopamine and serotonin, toxins, proteolytic enzymes and chitinases. The principal toxin is cephalotoxin”.
According to Karen Hall’s article “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish”, cuttlefish “have extremely strong beaks, similar to a parrot, which they can use to crack open hard-shelled animals like crabs, and a tooth lined tongue for rasping away at food held in the arms”.
Dennis Hutson says that the attack pose is when the cuttles point straight at you and close up their tentacles. When they are only 30cm from your face, they lunge at you, wrap their tentacles around your head and bite you with their very sharp and very hard beak. A few divers have had their equipment bitten.
The view shown in the next photo is the last thing a victim sees before being bitten by a cuttle.
The last thing a victim sees before being bitten by a cuttle
(taken by Michael Matthewson at Seacliff)
One cuttlefish ‘attack’ that resulted in a diver being bitten occurred at Rapid Bay jetty around 2003-4. Hank van der Wijngaart was diving from his boat anchored about 50m north of the eastern end of the ‘T’ end of the jetty. Around the centre of the ‘T’, he found a cuttle tangled in fishing line and proceeded to free it. He didn’t really expect a wild animal to realize that he was helping it. As he tried to free it, it gave him a bite. The bite wasn’t severe but it was a bit of a shock or a surprise to Hank more than anything. He did, however, manage to free the cuttle which then swam away. Hank says that his injury from the cuttle bite was not serious and that he had forgotten about it by the time he had surfaced.
I don’t know what time of the year Hank’s attack occurred and it’s not really relevant since the cuttle was only protecting itself from a large diver creature.
MORE ABOUT THEIR ARMS
According to “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish” by Karen Hall, “Cuttlefish have eight sucker lined arms growing from the front of their head, similar to squid. They also have two longer tentacles, which are kept tucked away in pouches underneath their eyes. They shoot these tentacles out in a rapid whip-like motion to seize their prey within their arms while they consume it”.
MORE ABOUT THEIR DENS & TERRITORIALITY
Also according to “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish”, “Sepia apama have been described by divers as being solitary animals, inhabiting caves and overhangs. The males are very territorial, and fiercely protect choice dens in order to attract females looking for a place to lay their eggs. Even in other regions of South Australia such as near Edithburgh in Gulf St Vincent, male cuttlefish have also been reported to occupy and guard dens”.
This may sound strange when considering the mating behaviour that occurs in the waters of upper Spencer Gulf each winter, but that sort of behaviour (large spawning aggregation) occurs in that area only and nowhere else. As Karina Hall says in her article titled “Cuttlefish Mysteries”, “Nowhere else does such a large spawning aggregation of cuttlefish occur. Generally, the individuals of most cuttlefish species are solitary animals occurring in low densities over very large areas. Numbers of the giant Australian cuttlefish in other coastal areas do increase during the spawning season. However, they do not reach the extremely high densities commonly observed in the waters adjacent to Black Point (near Whyalla, upper Spencer Gulf)”.
As already mentioned above, “The Flamboyant and Fascinating Lifecycle of the Giant Cuttlefish” says that “(Elsewhere across their distribution,) Sepia apama have been described by divers as being solitary animals, inhabiting caves and overhangs. The males are very territorial, and fiercely protect choice dens in order to attract females looking for a place to lay their eggs”. It goes on to say “The cuttlefish of the Black Point area, however, behaved in a very different manner. Instead of males guarding a den or territory, they fiercely guarded their chosen female”.
PROTECTION FROM CUTTLES?
If cuttlefish are more of a threat than we realize, we may soon have to start wearing a shark shield kind of device (a Sepia Shield?) to protect ourselves from them. With a Shark Shield attached to one leg and a Sepia Shield attached to the other leg, we will start to look like an octopus, or similar creature, ourselves. But seriously, it should never come to that.
The August 2007 issue of the SODS newsletter featured a photograph of Michael Matthewson with his face right up next to a largish cuttle. It seems that the cuttle didn’t mind the close attention by Michael at all.
Michael Matthewson with his face right up next to a largish cuttlefish at Rapid Bay
(taken by Michael Gosling)
Chris Deacon’s two articles said, “The colour patterns on the giant Australian cuttlefish suggests it is curious as it approaches a diver and lets her stroke its tentacles”. We need to show cuttlefish more respect, however, by leaving them alone and not harassing them in any way though, and we probably shouldn’t be attributing human emotions such as ‘curiosity’ and ‘friendliness’ to wild creatures such as them.
WHYALLA CUTTLEFISH SEASON
The annual cuttlefish-spawning season at the top of SA’s Spencer Gulf runs from May until September each year. Phone any of: – 8645 7900, 1800 088 589, or 8682 4688, or visit either of
to find out more about the cuttlefish. Phone Whyalla Diving Services on either 8645 8050 or 8644 1141, or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
to arrange for a dive with the cuttlefish.
Whyalla Diving Adventures can be contacted on 0418804421.
You can view some cuttlefish information on the PIRSA website including the following topics: – What Are They, Habitat, Movement, Feeding, Predators, Reproduction, Catch History, Closures, Catch Limits & Legal Lengths.
You can also view the PIRSA pamphlet “Cuttlefish Closure – Spencer Gulf” (October 2006).
Cuttlefish on Seacliff Reef
(Photo by Antony King)
My thanks to everyone who assisted me with this article, especially Dennis Hutson, Brian Brock, Tony Bramley, Chris Hall, Neville Skinner, Scoresby Shepherd, Bill Mildren, Hank van der Wijngaart, Ben Gryst, Michael Matthewson, Kevin Smith and Suzanne Bennett (the librarian at the South Australian Aquatic Sciences Centre Library). Thanks again to Dennis, Chris, and Michael M, along with Michael Gosling, Nathan Menzies and Nigel Muggridge for allowing me to use their cuttlefish photos.
“My Story On The Nasty Cuttlefish Of SA” by Dennis Hutson, MLSSA Newsletter, June 2006, No.333.
“Attack of the Killer Cuttlefish” by Sharon Gowens, Dive Log, July 2005, No. 204.
“Cuttlefish Behaviour” by DC Lake, South Australian Naturalist, March 1986, Vol.60, No.3.
“Cephalopods – Shimmering, Shredders of the Seas” by Mike Scotland, Dive Log, February 2001.
“The Amazing Giant Cuttle (Sepia apama)” by Alex Gaut, MLSSA Journal, No.11, December 2000.
“Australia Down Under – exploring Australia’s underwater world” by Christine Deacon, 1986, Doubleday Australia P/L, ISBN 0 86824 241 1.
“How I learned to get along swimmingly with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish” by Gary Graf, GEO (Australasia’s Geographical Magazine) March-May 1987, Vol.9, No.1.
“Down Under with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish” (an excerpt from “Australia Down Under – exploring Australia’s underwater world” by Christine Deacon), GEO Magazine, March-May 1987, Vol.9, No.1, (along with Gary Graf’s article “How I learned to get along swimmingly with the Giant Australian Cuttlefish”).
“A Guide to Squid, Cuttlefish and Octopuses of Australasia” by Mark Norman and Amanda Reid, Gould League of Australia/CSIRO Publishing, 2000, ISBN 0 643 06577 6.
“Injuries to Man from Marine Invertebrates in the Australian Region” by JB Cleland and RV Southcott, Commonwealth of Australia, 1965.
“Life of the Tidal Flats” by FA McNeill* and T Iredale in the Australian Museum Magazine, 2 (8), 1925. (This article is listed in the Australian Venom Compendium website.
The July 2007 issue of the SODS newsletter, Vol.14, Issue 7.
“Cephalopod Behaviour” by Hanlon, Roger T. & Messenger, John B., Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Suzanne Bennett, the librarian at the South Australian Aquatic Sciences Centre Library also suggested that the following entries from the library’s catalogue might be of interest: –
“Cuttlefish (Sepia apama): Fishery Assessment report to PIRSA for the Marine Scalefish Fishery Management Committee. 2002” (South Australian Fisheries Assessment Series 01/09 SARDI Internal Report No.139) by Hall, Karina C. (South Australian Research and Development Institute) – Call no. 639.2(06)S8.
“The Life history and fishery of a spawning aggregation of the giant Australian cuttlefish Sepia apama” by Hall, Karina C. (University of Adelaide) – Thesis submitted to the University of Adelaide for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2002. Call no.639.27H177.
“Estimated abundance and biomass of the unique spawning aggregation of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish (Sepia apama) in northern Spencer Gulf, South Australia (SARDI Aquatic Sciences Publication No. RD05/0012-1 SARDI Research Report Series Number 97 – Report to Coastal Protection Branch, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia) 2005, by Steer, M.A. Hall, K.C. (South Australian Research and Development Institute (Aquatic Sciences) ). Call no. 639.2(06)S8.
“Fisheries biology of the cuttlefish, Sepia apama Gray, in South Australian waters” (FRDC Final report) by Hall, K. C. Fowler, A.J. (South Australian Research and Development Institute Fisheries Research & Development Corporation FRDC Project 98/151), 2003. Call no.639.2(06)S723.
“Dynamics of the mating system of the giant Australian cuttlefish, Sepia apama Gray” by Hall, K. C. & Hanlon, R.T. (Bulletin of Marine Science Vol.71(2) 2002; p.1125). BRIEFS Hall2
(The South Australian Aquatic Sciences Centre Library (reference only) is located at 2 Hamra Ave, West Beach S.A. 5024. The hours of opening for the library are: –
Tues. 1 – 4pm, Wed. 9am –12noon + 1 – 4pm, Thurs. 9am –12noon. Contact details are: -Phone: 82075423, Fax: 82075422, Email: email@example.com .
Visit www.sardi.sa.gov.au for more details.)
David Muirhead says, “I was pulled backwards once by a rather small Sepia apama adult on a dive off Normanville north beach quite a few years ago.
It emerged from its ledge and grabbed my freedom 4 shield near the end of the trailing electrodes.
It was quite persistent, brazen actually, and I had to swim away from the main bommie’s long ledge further than I wanted to (almost all of the good photo subjects were there) in order to be free of this irritation!
The shield was functional but unsurprisingly didn’t seem to harm the cuttlefish, although it is possible that the electromagnetic field had upset it in some way, enough to make it attack it.
More likely the ploy was aimed at me and the cuttlefish regarded the shield tail as my tail.
I should note that the same cuttlefish (we saw several on this lengthy shore dive in good conditions but this was the most aggro one) had already displayed aggressive posturing when I first encountered it,including approaching menacingly with two raised tentacles.
But I was fully wet-suited, including hood and Teflon gloves, so I had waved it off a few times by sudden hand gestures, secure in the (mistaken) belief that such a small animal should and would accept my passing presence.
It did seem to be the end of the matter for a minute or so.
But having finished what I was doing right there and started swimming slowly away from the ledge in question, I felt myself being stopped by something tugging at my right leg from behind (I always wear my shield on my right ankle,being Left Handed).
My first thought was, how silly of my buddy to grab the electrode to get my attention.
Next thought:-OMG he’s seen a big shark and wants to warn me urgently!
Turning my head resolved any doubt as to the cause.
The cuttlefish was hard at work, tentacles wrapped firmly around the distal half of the electrode extension, trying to pull me backwards, in the general direction of its favorite part of the ledge.