A day at the beach: ‘I’m screaming through my snorkel … I didn’t think I’d ever get to see one’

Marine biologist Jacinta Shackleton was snorkelling on holiday when she had the sighting of a lifetime, a rare and beautiful blanket octopus

Every day, I probably spend three or four hours in the water on the Great Barrier Reef. I work as a reef guide-slash-marine biologist on Lady Elliot Island, so I do all the snorkelling tours and reef walking tours. I’ve been really lucky while I’ve been working out there: I’ve seen a lot of rare stuff, probably because I spend so much time out there. I’ve spotted ornate eagle rays and tiger sharks; I snorkelled with a great white two weeks ago.

On this particular day, though, I was actually having a little holiday. Me and one of my best friends were heading out for a regular snorkel. It was a little bit choppy, so it wasn’t perfect conditions. But it always seems to happen like that – you see the really cool stuff on the days that it’s not perfectly flat.

A rare sighting of a ‘rainbow-like’ blanket octopus off Lady Elliot Island, Queensland
A rare sighting of a ‘rainbow-like’ blanket octopus off Lady Elliot Island, Queensland. Composite: Jacinta Shackleton

We’d been in the water for about 20 minutes when I spotted it. We were headed out over this big sand patch, and there was a bit of stuff suspended in the water. I could see this bright, beautiful rainbow-coloured creature just floating in the water.

It was a pinky-red colour, with purple spots and yellow stripes. I thought it was a juvenile oarfish at first, but when I got closer I saw it was a blanket octopus. They are extremely rare. The first male was first seen in 2002, and Lady Elliot Island has only ever had two sightings. Normally, if people do see them, it’s out in the open ocean.

I absolutely lost it. It was so exciting because I’ve been wanting to see one forever. At first, my friend didn’t know what it was. I’m screaming through my snorkel and she’s like, what did you say? And then she realised what it was because we studied marine biology together.


We just sat in the water trying to get photos of it. I’m a photographer, so most of the time I go into the water I’ve got a proper camera set up in one hand and a GoPro in the other. I got footage and stills of it, which was epic. But it was really hard to get steady footage because I was just so excited, I couldn’t hold still. I was trying to hold my breath to swim down to get a good video of it. Even though I was only about 20cm away, there was a lot of movement because I couldn’t stop freaking out.

We spent about 15 or 20 minutes just bobbing around on the surface with it. That’s one thing I find with marine life – it is incredible to have these interactions, but you do get to the point where it’s like, all right, I’ve seen it, I’ve taken a good photo, I just want to let it be now.

When it started to drift over the reef into shallower water we were like: “OK, we’ll let it go.” We got out of the water and I literally ran around the whole resort showing everybody the photos on my camera, still drenched and in a wetsuit. My friend and I didn’t stop talking about it for the next couple of days.

Jacinta Shackleton at the diving ramp at The Spit on the Gold Coast
Jacinta Shackleton at the diving ramp at The Spit on the Gold Coast. Photograph: Paul Harris/The Guardian

It was very, very exciting – not only for us, but it was extensively covered in the media when we first spotted it, so people around the world were excited along with us.

I highly doubt I will ever get to see one again. Really, I didn’t think I’d ever get to see one in my whole life. It was just spectacular. I had never seen anything like it before. The ocean really is a very special place.


As told to Katie Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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