<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Tuesday,  May 21 , 2024

Linkedin Pinterest
News / Life / Entertainment

Octopus wrestlers competed in Tacoma 60 years ago. One of the last ones tells his story

By Becca Most, The News Tribune
Published: May 13, 2024, 5:58am

TACOMA — Below the surface of the Salish Sea divers encounter a whole new underwater world. Thick belts of bull kelp swim in the greenish current and dark rock cover hides the often elusive giant Pacific octopus, the largest octopus species on the planet.

DuPont mayor Ron Frederick can still remember the aroma of the seawater and the thrill of searching for octopus in a slimy cloud of ink. Although the 77-year-old no longer scuba dives, he believes he’s one of the last living octopus wrestlers in the Pacific Northwest.

In the 1960s Frederick and his father Karl took home a third place prize after wrestling a 56 pound octopus to the surface at Titlow Beach as part of the World Octopus Wrestling Championship. Although the sport hasn’t been practiced in nearly 60 years, it has evolved to attract new generations of divers who remain awestruck by the eight-legged creature.

In 1963, octopus wrestling rules were fairly simple: free-divers would push off in small teams in the first heat, later followed by groups in scuba gear. They’d scour the sea for any sign of an octopus and wrangle them from their dens. Then the divers would pull their catch to the surface and bring it to shore to be weighed and judged per pound. Octopuses would usually be tossed back, although a few were donated to local aquariums or eaten.

Frederick, a then 16-year-old, remembers a large crowd of about a thousand gathered on the beach, the air crackling with excitement. After donning a full rubber suit and hood and duck walking into the water, Frederick took off, cruising 50 to 60 feet below the surface and keeping an eye out for movement. His job was to hold a burlap sack to contain the octopus. Wrangling its strong suctioned arms proved to be tricky when also faced with a nebula of ink, Frederick said.

“When it does that, it’s hard to see anything,” he recalled Tuesday in his office. “You’re just kind of feeling around.”

The couple times he’s interacted with octopuses, Frederick said he’s never felt nervous or scared. One time in the spring before the 1963 competition, Frederick remembers diving with his father in Steilacoom and watching an octopus wrap its arms around his legs after his father grabbed it.

“I saw he couldn’t swim, and he was kind of signaling to me, so I grabbed his life jacket and I pulled him to the surface and then onto the beach at Saltar’s Point,” he said. “Then we just gradually untangled the octopus’s legs, and the suction on those arms are pretty strong.”

Frederick said diving and seeing octopus gave him a greater respect for the world around him.

“As we all know, the planet’s covered in 75% water. So the biggest part of our planet is stuff that people don’t see,” Frederick said. With the number of movies and videos about octopuses and aquatics out now, “It’s not as strange to many people as it was back then,” he said.

Octopus wrestling was banned a couple years after the world competitions, a decision Frederick contends is, “probably a good thing.” But at the time bizarre contests like this were popular, and “if there’s something you could wrestle or race, somebody’s going to try it,” he said.

Evolution of octopus wrestling

Octopus wrestling and other underwater sports got their start in a time where freediving — where divers hold their breath rather than use breathing apparatuses like scuba gear — was popular, as was spearfishing, said Annie Crawley, a dive instructor and underwater photographer and filmmaker based in Edmonds.

Former diver and Seattle legend Gary Keffler, now 89, founded the World Octopus Wrestling Championship as a way to spur interest in diving and market his Underwater Sports Inc. shop, which now has locations in Lakewood, Seattle, Edmonds, Federal Way and Bellevue, Crawley said. She spoke to The News Tribune Friday on behalf of Keffler and his family.

Keffler represented the United States in worldwide spear-fishing and freediving competitions in the 1950s and ‘60s. As reported by Dorothy Wilhelm in her book, “True Tales of Puget Sound,” Keffler won a second and a silver medal at the World Spearfishing Championship in 1963.

That same year, 111 divers from Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia crowded Titlow Beach for the World Octopus Wrestling Championship event, bringing friends and family to watch.

In today’s world, Crawley said she’d be one of the first to oppose octopus wrestling, but said at the time people knew very little about octopuses. Crawley said people should not be so quick to judge past events based on contemporary values and norms.

“When you look in perspective, back in 1972 was the first film that came out about giant Pacific octopus,” she said. “If they brought one of these to the beach, imagine the crazy excitement.”

Crawley said with videos, research and information about octopuses at our fingertips today we are more knowledgeable about the underwater world. Diving has helped share what happens underwater, and brought adventure with it, she said.

Underwater Sports Inc. has grown to be one of the leaders in diving and diver education in the Pacific Northwest region, Crawley said. To date, more than 60,000 people have been certified to dive through the company, which is entering into its fourth generation of family ownership and involvement.

This September will be Underwater Sports Inc.’s second annual PNW Shootout. It’s not octopus wrestling or a spearfishing competition, but a photography competition where divers from around the region come and earn rewards for the best octopus photo.

Morning Briefing Newsletter envelope icon
Get a rundown of the latest local and regional news every Mon-Fri morning.

With octopus and a host of other sea life facing pollution, habitat loss and loss of food sources, Crawley said it’s still important to engage divers and the greater community in protecting the ocean.

“We want to engage and connect,” she said. “Once you become an underwater explorer, it’s really hard to be one and not want to protect it.”