Chris Packham: ‘As it turns out, octopuses are complete escape artists’

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I was immediately confronted by a whole load of turtles hatching and going down into the sea – I felt like I’d stepped into a David Attenborough documentary. I was so excited that I didn’t get back to the hotel until very late, then I could barely sleep, got up before it was light, and went out again. I walked in the opposite direction, where a river drained into the sea. I walked onto the sand bars, and I was enormously excited to see a bird called a Kentish plover – a rarity here as they’ve nested only once or twice in the UK. As I approached, it wandered off, and there at my feet were four beautiful little eggs in a nest. 

By the time the day ended I’d seen an eagle owl in a cave, a black stork and some great bustards flying over farmland. My head was just fizzing; it was like an explosion of life around me. The diversity and density of it was overwhelming. I saw a little hole beside a stone and suspected something was living there, so I turned it over and there was an enormous lizard! I grabbed it because I wanted a closer look, as reptiles were one of my specialities, but as I did so, it took a bite out of my thumb. 

I was meant to be doing some genuine field work, but every time our supervisor gave me a task, I’d find some sand wasp or invertebrate that I had to examine. I’d never seen griffin vultures before, but I saw a local dump swarming with them. So I set up my own little hide made from potato sacks to watch them scavenging, because they leave nothing but bones when they find a carcass. A bit gruesome, but it was fascinating to observe close up. 

The following day down at the beach I found a small octopus amongst the surf. I put it in a bucket of sea water and took it up to the bathtub in my room, which I’d filled with sea water, to slowly watch it change colour – as octopuses do – from black to a translucent white. I had to nip out briefly. When I came back, it was gone, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. As it turns out, they’re complete escape artists. I turned the room over and found it behind a chest of drawers, having clambered out of the bath and slipped under the bathroom door. I realised it wasn’t happy, so I returned it to the sea.

I barely slept the two weeks I was away: I was just ablaze with adrenaline. Everywhere I looked, there was something amazing. That trip made a huge impact on me and the path I took in life.

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