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A stunning visual antidote to constant bad news

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The cuttlefish’s arms and tentacles are held tightly together at its front as it swims. (Courtesy photo)


If you want an antidote to the constant litany of bad news on television and your Facebook feed, I have two words (and one Roman numeral) for you: “Blue Planet II.”

The latest series from the BBC nature documentarians is absolutely stunning in its visuals, showing what life is like under the ocean. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, “Blue Planet II” required boatloads of patience to film, as the underwater photographers followed various sea creatures for days and weeks at a time to record never-before-seen behaviors and activities.

The most surprising takeaway from the series for me — Cephalopods rock!

“Blue Planet II” showed just how intelligent and adaptive these invertebrates, with their large heads and suckered tentacles and arms, really are. I never fully appreciated octopuses, squid and cuttlefish before. Now, I do.

In the third episode, for example, a cuttlefish pursues its favorite food, a large crab. It has to be careful, however, because the crab’s huge claws are very dangerous. But the cuttlefish has a secret weapon: millions of pigment cells in its skin that it can control with startling precision.

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As the cuttlefish approaches the crab, its skin begins to change. Thanks to its pigment control, wave after wave of alternating light and dark bands seem to move down the cephalopod’s length, from the back of its head to the tips of its arms, held tightly together in front of it. Like a tourist from the Midwest seeing the neon-filled Las Vegas Strip for the first time, the crab is completely mesmerized, standing motionless as the cuttlefish moves closer and closer. The sudden appearance of a shark is the only thing that saves the poor crab, as the cuttlefish scurries off to avoid the larger predator.

What an amazing evolutionary adaptation!

I’ve watched the octopus at the California Academy of Sciences change color as it moves around its enclosure, matching the pigment cells in its skin to the background rocks. But I’d never seen skin colors change in such a fast-moving, repeating pattern. I was as hypnotized as the crab.

Then, there is a female octopus off the coast of South Africa who stars in the fifth episode. The “Blue Planet II” underwater cameramen say that she came right up to them and seemed completely unconcerned they were there. She went about her daily business as they filmed her.

One day, however, a small pyjama shark came along, looking for a meal. As the horrified cameramen looked on, the shark grabbed the female octopus and pulled her out from under a rock, shaking her violently. The crew thought she was a goner.

But then, she reached around the shark’s mouth and put her tentacles into the shark’s gills, effectively cutting off the larger predator’s oxygen supply. Unable to breathe, the shark had no choice but to let her go and swim away.

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However, the octopus was now out in the open with no protection. So she folded herself into a tight ball and used her tentacles to cover herself with shells, disguising herself, hiding in plain sight. The shark returned but couldn’t figure out why he smelled octopus but couldn’t see one. He bumped into the mound of shells a few times, but the octopus held on to her protective armor. Finally, she let all the shells go, confusing the shark even more. As she darted away, he continued to poke at the now octopus-less pile of shells.

Like I said, Cephalopods rock!

I encourage everyone to watch “Blue Planet II.” The shows have a serious message about the need to protect our oceans from plastics, climate change and human interference. But the stunning visuals are what will stay with you.

We hear so much bad news every day, it’s easy to get depressed. But after watching episodes of this series, my soul felt refreshed. I was left with a renewed sense of wonder and amazement at the stunning beauty, complexity and variety of creatures that live in the oceans of our blue planet.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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