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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Squid Ink Pasta Adventures

bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis)

My son Louie recently described to me a dish at a “very Italian” San Francisco restaurant in which the pasta is dyed black and tastes briny, by application of the contents of the ink sac of a squid. It reminded me of a startling incident when I suddenly had the ink sac of a squid all over my face.

It was at the end of a nice snorkel off Honolulu'sSans Souci beach, where, a century and some ago, Robert Louis Stevenson whiled away the balmy afternoons with Liliuokalani , who upon the death of her brother David Kalakaua would become the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands. (She would shortly see her beloved land forcibly taken over by American businessmen, in 1893, and then annexed to the United States in 1898.)

I had snorkeled up and down a small lava and coral canyon offshore, seeing the usual cast of wrasses (Christmas, ornate, saddle, yellowtail), butterfly fishes (raccoon, saddleback, longnose, threadfin), reef triggerfish (the famous humuhumu nukuku apua’a) and spotted boxfish. I was so loathe to see the experience end that I snorkeled back to the beach over the sandy bottom there, head down and scanning right and left, in no more than two feet of water.

In an instant my universe went completely black, a dark shroud completely enveloping my mask and head. I jerked back, and within a second realized that I had bumped into one of the cephalopods—octopus, squid, cuttlefish—who release sacs of ink as a defensive act. My immediate thought was “Octopus!”, since I had seen them before at Queens Beach further west along this stretch of Waikiki.

I retreated further, out of the enveloping blackness, and quickly scanned the area for a retreating octopus. Nothing. Immediately upon releasing their ink sac into the water—which contains not just the black tint, but proteins which momentarily stun fish—the octopus jet-propels himself out of the area and the chromatophores on his skin perfectly mimic his surroundings. In other words, he’s gone and invisible while the enemy is still dealing with the black cloud that’s suddenly bloomed all around him.

Well, it worked on me. I was pretty excited to have had the honor of being “inked” by an octopus, and staggered out of the water to my beach chair, where I immediately began telling a sun bathing young girl, who had put her towel down nearby in my absence, about my adventure. As she nervously moved away she took out her cell phone and speed-dialed a friend, just in case the nutty guy next to her went totally berserk.

I was sure I had bumped into an octopus, but the next year I saw something that made me change my mind (yes, we’re going to get to squids soon; stay with me). I was snorkeling around Black Rock, a lava promontory on the north end of Ka’anapali Beach in Maui, from which the great Maui chief Kahekili loved to dive into the ocean. This is the chief with half his face and body tattooed jet black, reputed to be the father of the great Kamehameha who united the various islands in the late 18th century. (Hawaiian social mores being what they were, paternity was often in doubt among the ali’i nobles.)

This particular snorkel was among my best ever. The fish were abundant around the promontory, all the usual cast, and I had moreover already seen two medium-sized octopuses by the time I rounded the point. And then I saw a sight I’d never seen in three decades of snorkeling: a small school of…of things of some sort hanging in the 25-feet of water about six feet below the surging surface, silvery things with a mass of tentacles wriggling in front of their faces, or what I guessed was faces, since they had big, unblinking eyes just behind the tentacles.

Cuttlefish! I thought with a surge of joy. A school of cuttlefish, the ancient cousins of octopuses and squid in the fascinating cephalopod family of molluscs. I cautiously circled the weird creatures in the water. They ignored me. I spent about ten minutes enjoying the spectacle, then began to tire and get cold, so I reluctantly began my swim back around the point, feeling quietly exuberant (in addition to tired and cold, a trio of sensations that often occur together).

When I emailed my old friend Steve (who had grown up in Hawaii and has forgotten more about sea creatures than I’ll ever know), he gently informed me that cuttlefish have hooded, “droopy” eyes, but squid have the wide eyes I described. I quickly looked up squid on-line and—Yes! The Bigfin Reef Squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana) was what I had encountered. (The prominent fin running the length of the body, authorities admit, give the creature its resemblance to cuttlefish.)

Squid, like octopods and cuttlefish, have ink sacs which they use as defensive diversions to stun potential predators while they escape. In the several years since all this transpired, I’ve kept alert eyes out on Hawaiian beaches, and have seen flashes of silvery objects in the near-shore over sand that could well be reef squid. And in fact, I’ve never seen octopuses except on rocks and coral, or traveling between rocks and coral heads. So I’ve come to the considered conclusion that on that morning off Sans Souci beach, it’s most likely a reef squid that that I bumped into, rather than an octopus. Either way, it was a wonderful experience.

This sort of fabulous experience is not uncommon while snorkeling, which is why I love it so much. Every snorkel is a treasure hunt, to see what you’ll uncover or bump into. One day driving along the Kona coast of the Big Island, Tammy, Ash and Lou and I saw 28 green sea turtles as we stopped at various sites to snorkel, from the beach off the airport north of Kona, to the Kamehameha Hotel beach in Kona (where Tammy also saw a very poisonous scorpion fish lurking on the bottom) to Kealakekua Bay and, finally, the cove off of Honaunau, the city of refuge. A wonderful day, there being no more noble and benign creatures on the planet than sea turtles; they are the giant sequoias of the oceans, in terms of inspiring awe and wonder.

So I’m looking forward to obtaining some Nero Di Seppia (squid or cuttlefish ink), follow one of the several on-line recipes for squid ink pasta, saute up some shrimp over it, and recall some very fond adventures as I munch my way through my dark plate of pasta. Bon appetit!

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