Rare sighting of blanket octopus off Great Barrier Reef

Headshot of Stephen Scourfield
Stephen ScourfieldThe West Australian
VideoBlanket Octopus

Master reef guide and marine biologist Jacinta Shackleton can’t believe her eyes — the octopus in front of her is pulsing rainbow colours.

It’s a rare technicolour marine mollusc — a female blanket octopus, and quite a spot to start January 2022. For sightings of the blanket octopus are so rare that the first live male was only spotted 21 years ago on Ribbon Reefs, further north on Great Barrier Reef, and it is believed there have been only three other sightings at Lady Elliot Island, before Jacinta’s encounter.

Jacinta has been diving, snorkelling and guiding on this bit of the southern Great Barrier Reef for four years and has been conducting researching around Lady Elliot Island.

She says: “I was snorkelling about 100m off the shore with a friend, in about eight or nine metres of water, when I saw this rainbow-coloured flicker.

Blanket Octopus off Lady Elliot Island, Queensland.
Camera IconBlanket Octopus off Lady Elliot Island, Queensland. Credit: Jacinta Shackleton

“When I first saw it, I thought it could have been a juvenile fish with long fins, but as it came closer, I realised it was a female blanket octopus and I had this overwhelming sense of joy and excitement.

“I kept yelling through my snorkel, ‘it’s a blanket octopus!’ I was so excited I was finding it difficult to hold my breath to dive down and video it.”

And that excitement lives on for Jacinta. She adds: “Seeing one in real life is indescribable, I was so captivated by its movements, it was as if it was dancing through the water with a flowing cape. The vibrant colours are just so incredible, you can’t take your eyes off it.

“I’ve truly never seen anything like it before and don’t think I ever will again in my life.”

  • The female blanket octopus can grow to between one and two metres long, though males make it only up to 2.4cm — the biggest gender size discrepancy in the marine world.
  • The name “blanket octopus” comes from the webbed “cape” or “blanket” that trails behind the female, a feature the males do not display.
  • The female blanket octopus can shed its distinctive fluorescent coloured cape in self-defence.
  • The species can also take stinging cells from other organisms to use as a weapon.

Jacinta says the blanket octopus generally spend its life in the open ocean, so it’s even more unusual to see one on the reef — and to have had two cameras with her.

And this is not Jacinta’s first extraordinary sighting off Lady Elliot Island. In 2020 she encountered a rare ornate eagle ray and last year spotted both a fever of more than 100 distinctive cownose rays and a rare melanistic manta ray.

Jacinta Shackleton.
Camera IconJacinta Shackleton. Credit: Jacinta Shackleton

fact file

Lady Elliot Island is home to abundant marine life, making it one of the most sought-after Great Barrier Reef sites.

There are day trips and tours to Lady Elliot Island, which is on the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, 80km north-east of Bundaberg, just to the north of Fraser Island.

There are day trips that include return scenic flights to the Island, orientation tour, a glass-bottom boat/guided snorkelling tour, snorkel equipment (mask, snorkel & fins), full use of day guest facilities, a hot and cold buffet lunch and an afternoon of snorkelling, leisure or joining our experienced guides for a guided activity/tour.

Locals recommend a minimum of two nights on the island to fully experience it. There is accommodation at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort.


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