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killing an octopus

November 14, 2003

a puffer fish
a puffer fish

Last Friday was the full moon, and that brings with it an extremely low tide, along with extremely bright moonlight: the perfect conditions for an octopus hunt.

So, at ten o’clock several dozen of us gathered at the beach and equipped ourselves with torches and small three-pronged spears before wading out towards the reef. The tide was astonishingly low – not more than knee-deep for close to a kilometre – so we just walked and walked across the fields of broken coral, spears in hand, looking for octopi.

It was pretty exciting, at first – the other octopus hunters becoming just little bobbing lights as we fanned out across the water. From time to time a little round puffer fish would dart, unpuffed, around my legs and then disappear. Puffer fish are strange-looking and quite cute – to the extent that fish can be cute, anyway. The more I walked, though, the more I realised that although hunting them was fun, I didn’t very much want to actually kill an octopus. But at the same time, I was thinking about a conversation I once had with Alfy, his point being that if you are willing to eat animals, you should be prepared to kill them too – that there’s something wrong with being willing to eat something that you wouldn’t also be willing to kill. Which I think is a fair point, and since I would be willing (pseudo-vegetarian that I am) to eat an octopus, I knew I was going to have to be prepared to kill one, too. But I like octopuses, and by the time I came face to face with one, my heart wasn’t really in it any more. I let the social science teacher, who I was hunting with, take the first one, but I knew that if I didn’t want to be a hypocrite then I would have to catch the next one myself.

When I found it, I didn’t have the heart to spear it, so I decided to just pluck it out of the water and throw it, alive, into the bag we were carrying. That seemed more humane, somehow. (I found out the next day that octopuses can give you a pretty nasty bite, which allowed me to tell myself, with hindsight, that I was giving the octopus more of a chance, catching it the way I did…)

So, having caught my octopus, I lost interest in the hunt. I wasn’t in any hurry to find another octopus, and I was beginning to get cold (although the weather is still quite warm, the sea has cooled a lot since September). But there was still a lot of hunting time left before the tide came back in, and since I was sharing a torch with Matsumoto-sensei, I couldn’t go back to the shore. So the next hour or so was spent trudging around knee-deep in increasingly cold water, and treading on sea urchins. I was wearing special sea-shoes (no-one goes in the sea in bare feet here, because there are plenty of things in the sea that you really wouldn’t want to step on) but they were very cheap, and, I quickly discovered, weren’t thick enough to fully protect my feet if I stepped hard on an urchin. So I got spiked quite a few times, and a couple of times had to stop to lever the urchin off my shoe with my spear (luckily no spines actually got far enough in to get stuck in my foot, though). By the time I got back to shore, I was cold, tired, bored, and depressed.

When the evening’s catches were all tipped into a big trough at the beach for cleaning and counting, an absolute little fucker of a thirteen-year-old came along and picked up my octopus – which was still just about alive – and squeezed one of its eyes out. I was about as furious as complete exhaustion would allow me to be. While I’m not entirely sure that eating animals is always wrong, I am absolutely sure of the importance of treating them with respect – even molluscs, and especially if you are going to kill and eat them. (This is one area where I’m beginning to get the impression that Japan does rather badly compared to Britain. Not that people in Britain are particularly kind to animals, but at least in Britain saying you don’t eat meat (for example) is not generally met with bafflement – which is the usual reaction here).

So, octopus hunting, then… it sounds exciting and romantic, but in reality it is cold, tiring, and miserable. Next time I’ll take a camera instead of a spear, I think…

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