An octopus caught a bald eagle in a death grip, a headline I saw last week blared forth.
My eyes flew open. Wide. It was its subtitle that grabbed me the most. Thanks to some salmon farmers, the eagle survived.
There are no new stories, it is said often by those who think about such things. Oh, the details may change but at their essence, it’s the same stories that are told over and over and over again. If ever I needed proof of this saying, that headline was it. You see, I was told the almost identical tale some years ago. The only real difference, it seemed, was that instead of the Pacific off Canada’s Vancouver Island with the eagle and the salmon farmers, the earlier version took place on the island of Sifnos in Greece’s Aegean Sea.
If you’ve spent much time in Heronissos, as I have, that island’s tiniest and arguably most picturesque fishing village, you will likely have noticed a lone seagull that flies in every day around noon. Every time I’m there, I make sure to watch for it and it never disappoints. It soars in most times from behind the hills across from my favourite taverna, then circles in a series of ever-lower concentric rings that mimic the shape of the bay, and drops itself finally and softly onto the water, causing barely a plop or even a ripple. Then it sits there in its coat of the purest white, turning its head regally this way and that, holding court. The King of Heronissos, I often call him.
He actually has a real name, a proper Greek one – Sotiris. It’s the one that the family who owns the taverna has given him, the people he knows will feed him every day as they’ve been doing for years now. We’ve become quite fond of this bird, my husband and I, and when I heard the story that Antonis, the taverna’s owner, could barely wait to tell us our first day back on the island after many months away, my heart leapt. An octopus caught a regal seagull in a death grip might properly be its headline.
It’s fish guts that Antonis feeds Sotiris, the remains from whatever bakaliaro, barbouni or kalamari he’s just cleaned to prepare it for cooking. Clearly, to the bird these are a treat. If you watch him closely, you’ll see that he’s always alert to the sounds from inside, and at the first hint of the tsssssrt, tsssssrt, tsssssrt as a knife scrapes scales from skin or the clunk of a blade on the chopping block, he swims over to the dock that fronts the taverna, near enough that were he to permit it, I could easily reach out and stroke his feathers. He knows that shortly Antonis will walk to the dock’s edge, stand poised for a minute, then toss the prized morsels high in the air. In that instant, a mighty flap of his wings follows and he catches what he can in mid-air. Whatever he misses, he grabs it from atop the water before it can sink into its depths.
The day of this story, as the fishy bits hit the water, an octopus went for them too. Before you knew it, its tentacles were wrapped around Sotiris and had him in … well, a death grip. A series of fearsome squawks arose from the bird and Antonis, fully clothed, jumped into the waist-high water to help. But, as strong as he is, his efforts were not enough. Another man jumped in behind him and together they battled and in time set the bird free. “Poor Sotiris,” Antonis said. “I thought he was at his end.” Even now, as we were hearing this story some months after, Sotiris remembered. More tentative than I’d ever seen before, he’d circle and circle longer than usual above the water and scan its clear depths before he’d venture to land. As for the octopus, I’ve forgotten some of the details, but I do recall being told that on that fateful night he became someone’s supper.
Little wonder then, with that story in my background, that the headline for the British Columbia story caught my eye. Naturally, I began to read right away. A team of salmon farmers were returning from work in their boat when they came upon a full-sized eagle submerged in the water, and a giant octopus trying to drag it down. They watched for a bit. It was heart-wrenching to see, one of the men told the reporter, but they were unsure if it was right to intervene or whether they ought to leave nature to do what it does. They debated this way and that for about five minutes and in the end, their collective kindness won out. As the boat inched in closer to help, one of the men began to video the scene.
The Pacific version of the story was all quite a sedate affair, I saw right away as I began to watch, at least the videoed part. The eagle was sitting quietly atop the water – no shrieks from him – and the octopus was draped like a cozy pink scarf over and around his shoulders. No fuss, no battle, and it was soon all over. A crewman reached over with a long hooked pole, tugged gently on one of those eight tentacles, the sea creature released his grip and the bird swam away.
But the salmon farmers were not quite finished yet. The man with the hook hoisted the octopus high and they all oohed and aahed at its massive size. In the end, though, its fate, at least in that moment, was a happy one too. You might say it was his great good fortune that day to be Canadian, not Greek.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new this spring, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.