Of the 42 species of octopus known from New Zealand, only a few are commonly encountered. Octopus live mainly on the sea floor. However, small specimens of the common octopus (Pinnoctopus cordiformis or wheke) and the fist-sized Octopus huttoni can often be found in tidal rock pools. As wheke grow, they venture into subtidal reefs. Reaching over 1 metre in length and 9 kilograms in weight, they are among the largest predators on the reef. They feed on crayfish, crabs and shellfish.
Octopus in proverb
Māori refer to octopus in their proverbs. One draws upon the animal’s tenacious nature when hiding among rocks: ‘Etia me te wheke e pupuru ana’ (holding on like an octopus).
Another is scornful of the way octopus, if caught, give up without a fight: ‘Kia kaua e mate ā-wheke, me mate ururoa’ (do not die like the octopus, rather die fighting like the great white shark).
Paper nautilus (Argonauta nodosa and Argonauta argo) are found in surface waters of the open seas around New Zealand. They are known for their delicate shell, formed by the female as a brood chamber for her eggs. In early summer, females move to coastal waters to release the shells containing their developing young. The empty shells are often washed up on New Zealand’s north-eastern beaches.
Two of the world’s largest species of octopus have been found around New Zealand:
- An incomplete specimen of the giant gelatinous octopus (Haliphron atlanticus), which grows to 4 metres in length and weighs 70 kilograms, was trawled from a depth of 920 metres near the Chatham Islands.
- The giant South Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus zealandicus), which reaches 3 metres and weighs 30 kilograms, has been identified from beaks found in the gut of beached whales.
Māori and octopus
According to legend, the Polynesian navigator Kupe was led to New Zealand by the giant octopus Te Wheke-o-Muturangi. Intent on killing the octopus that was robbing his tribe of fish, Kupe, along with his family and some warriors, set out in a large canoe to hunt it down. The octopus swam south for weeks and eventually took shelter near Cook Strait, where Kupe found it. After a ferocious battle, Kupe tricked the octopus into wrapping its arms around some water containers, and killed it with a blow to the head.
Māori caught octopus by hand. They placed one hand into the water to act as bait and when an octopus wrapped its tentacles around their arm, they seized the body with their other hand and hauled the animal out of the water.