The first time I went spearfishing for tako (the Japanese word for octopus–this word is commonly used in Hawaii) was quite a shock to me. A friend invited me to come with him, and I envisioned myself taking a deep breath, diving below the surface of the crystal clear waters off Oahu’s north shore, spotting one of the eight-legged critters, and shooting it with a spear.
I had developed a taste for fresh tako in my time in northern Japan, and I couldn’t wait to have access to it again (there is a lamentable dearth of fresh tako at your typical grocery store in Michigan and Colorado).
I had gone spear fishing once previously, and I had found that fish are relatively easy. You get close to one. You aim the gun. You shoot. The hardest part is 1) not getting tangled up in the cord that attaches the spear to the body of the gun, and 2) not thinking about sharks while you haul around a dead fish or two.
So I figured tako would be similar. Easy, right? Wrong.
You don’t just shoot a tako. What you need to do is take a deep, deep breath and dive to find a “tako den.” The den is a small hole, usually on the sandy bottom of the ocean. Tako are neat and tidy, and you can often recognize the dens because the whole ocean floor will be covered with moss except for one small area right in front of a hole just a bit too small to fit a baseball into.
Once you find the den, you probably need to come up and take another deep, deep breath. You then dive back down to the den and gently insert the tip of your spear. You are hoping a tako is at home, but you don’t just stab it. Rather, what you need to do is gently piss it off. You do this by poking it with your spear a few times just enough to be a nuisance, but not trying to do any real damage.
Once you have the beast good and pissed off, you will see a mass of twisting arms burst out of the den, red and angry, and looking to take control of the object intruding into its home. These arms will wrap themselves around the shaft of your spear and lock down tight. Now you have it right where you want it!
Once the tako has a good hold on your spear, you quickly pull the spear out of the den, and the tako, holding tightly to the spear, will come right out with it. Quick! GRAB IT! If you don’t grab the tako quickly, it will simply swim away, inking and laughing. So before it can make its getaway, you grab it around the head and swim to the surface.
Except that none of this is very easy to do, and remember that you have to do it all holding your breath. My friend made it look easy. He held his breath for long periods of time, pissed off the tako with the greatest of ease, and was able to smoothly and gracefully grab the little buggers once he had them out of the den. He then let them go since his goal was to teach me to catch them, not bag a dozen tako.
For me, it was more difficult. Apparently, I kept finding very patient tako. They were able to quietly endure the annoying poking with my spear for longer than I was able to hold my breath. I always had to come back to the surface to breathe before the tako would grab hold of my spear.
But in the end, my determination for a tako feast won out. I had found a den with a tako in it, and I committed that I was not going to surface until I had the creature in my grasp.
I took a breath. I swam down. I poked. I poked some more. I started to feel my lungs burn. I poked some more. My mind fought with itself as to whether I should stick with my commitment to catch a tako or drown, or if I should simply give up and move along with my life, accepting the fact that tako would never fear me and my hunting prowess.
I poked a few last pokes.
Suddenly a burst of red tentacles boiled out of the den and wrapped around my spear. Quickly I withdrew the spear. I grabbed the tako by the head in the way my friend had shown me (except in a desperate, clumsy manner common to those about to faint from lack of oxygen rather than the smooth and graceful way he had shown me), and instantly the tako let go of the spear and wrapped its tentacles around my arm.
Together we surfaced, clouded in an inky haze as the tako tried desperately to cover a getaway that I would not let occur.
Triumphantly my head broke the surface. I gasped for air. I bellowed a manly, Earth-shattering victory howl (in reality I choked and sputtered a bit, but in my mind it was very impressive).
I looked at the beast clinging tightly to my arm, and I wondered, “well . . . now what do I do?” We stared at each other, that tako and I, for a few moments. I had no idea how to deal with it. I wanted to kill it as quickly and humanely as I could. With fish, first you shoot them with a spear, and then you use a dive knife to end them quickly. But this was a healthy, fully functional tako squeezing down on my arm as if it believed that if it applied enough pressure I would submit to it.
Just then, my friend arrived and explained to me what I need to do. He told me that there is a small bump of cartilage right between the tako’s eyes.
“Find it with your teeth.”
Ummm . . . what?
“Just bite it gently between the eyes. You will feel the bump.”
Ummm . . . WHAT?!
“Just do it!”
I did it. I felt the bump.
“OK. Just bite down on that really hard. If you crush it with your teeth, the tako will die instantly.”
UMMMMMM . . . WHAT????!!!!!
I am OK with fishing, which means I do kill creatures so that I can eat them. And while I don’t enjoy hunting, I am not a vegetarian, so philosophically I am OK with the whole “circle of life” thing. But to kill something by biting it? Kind of weird.
It took me a moment of thinking, but I decided to do it. I found the bump with my mouth, I placed my teeth carefully on it, and I bit down. Hard.
There was brief resistance, and then a quick pop, and immediately the tako turned from bright red to pallid white, and its grip on my arm loosened. I peeled its arms off of me, placed it in my bag, and swam back to shore (while I often spearfish, I never take more fish than I will eat immediately–one tako, one bigger fish, or a couple of medium sized ones).
That night I silently scrubbed the tako with salt, cleaned it, boiled and then fried it, and fed it to my family with a sweet and sour sauce. It was amazingly good. Maybe the best tako I have ever eaten.
Later I found out that you can also make a quick motion that simulates flipping the tako inside out that kills them instantly, and many of my friends claim that killing the tako with your teeth is dangerous. The tako may lunge into your mouth and choke you.
But I still kill them by biting them. I am not sure why. I don’t enjoy killing them with my teeth, but I feel somehow it is the right thing to do. It is a kiss of thanksgiving at the end of a struggle. An intimate sign of gratitude.
If the day ever comes that I cannot bear to kill a tako with my teeth, I will become a vegetarian. If I cannot kill in such a way, then I must feel it is wrong somehow.
Until then, I will simply be grateful for experiences that require me to examine my values. Because travel.