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Tiny octopuses wash ashore on Pinellas County beach after weekend storms

Close-up of an octopus
Zac Sweeney
Scores of octopuses washed ashore at Pass-a-Grille Beach in Pinellas County on Monday after strong onshore winds blew marine debris close to shore. Zac Sweeney, a beachgoer from St. Petersburg, released at least 30 back into the water over a 20-minute period, he said.

They likely had just hatched and blew in with the strong onshore winds recently, a biologist said.

For Zac Sweeney, one octopus sighting was rare enough. But dozens of tiny octopuses, all on one stretch of shoreline? That was something special.

“Never in my life have I seen what I saw yesterday,” Sweeney, 37, said in an interview Tuesday.

He was sitting on Pass-a-Grille Beach with his girlfriend Monday afternoon, as he does most weeks, when something peculiar in the sand caught his eye.

“All of a sudden, like a slinky, this little octopus rolled out of the shells,” Sweeney said.

It was no larger than the nail of his pinkie finger, Sweeney said. He made a makeshift bucket using a nearby seashell, filled it with gulf water and placed the tiny octopus inside.

“And then there was another one. And another one. And pretty soon the little shell had about six of them in it,” said Sweeney, the owner of a St. Petersburg construction company.

In just 20 minutes, Sweeney estimates, he caught and released at least 30 octopuses back into the Gulf of Mexico. There were “thousands” dotting the shoreline, he said.

“I’m a very wildlife-oriented person: I hit the springs, I snorkel, scuba dive and spearfish,” Sweeney said. “But to see this immense amount of wildlife that was washed up was just insane.”

Close-up of tiny octopus
Zac Sweeney
Beachgoer Zac Sweeney of St. Petersburg used a seashell as a makeshift bucket to deliver as many beached octopuses as possible back into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico on Monday.

Based on Sweeney’s photographs, it appears the octopuses are juveniles, according to Cayli Carson, a biologist at the Florida Aquarium. Some female octopuses can lay up to 200,000 eggs, but that doesn’t mean each egg will hatch.

It’s likely that they blew in during this weekend’s storms, Carson said.

“During my six years living here, I’ve never seen this happen before,” Carson said in an interview. “I would expect during hurricanes or bigger storms we’d see something like that, but I’ve never seen it.”

Carson has spent nearly a decade of her career working directly with octopuses, and currently tends to the giant Pacific octopus species at the aquarium, she said.

Multiple biologists said it’s difficult to determine the species without having a physical animal to examine. But it’s down to some contenders based on where they were found along the coast, including the Atlantic pygmy octopus, the common octopus and the Caribbean reef octopus.

“Those are species that you could possibly find in the Gulf of Mexico,” Carson said.

Atlantic pygmy octopuses will often find shelter in shells on the seafloor, according to Nancy Smith, a marine invertebrate ecologist at Eckerd College. Some of the social media posts that have documented the octopuses in Pinellas County recently have showed the animals curled up in shells, which has led Smith to believe they could be Atlantic pygmies.

That species only gets to 3 inches in length when they’re fully grown, Smith said.

Heather Judkins, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in cephalopods like octopuses, squid and cuttlefish, also reviewed Sweeney’s photos and agreed there is uncertainty about the particular species based on images alone.

Without taking a formal sample, it’s difficult to confirm whether there were thousands of octopuses on the beach, but Carson said that number is not out of the realm of possibility — especially if they had just hatched.

Octopuses are often reef-dwelling, but some are considered a pelagic species, which means they will float in deep waters before eventually settling on the ocean floor.

It’s rare, but octopus have been found by Tampa area beachgoers in the past. In 2016, for instance, a similar storm pushed marine debris closer to land. Visitors documented an adult octopus crawling along the white sands of Fort De Soto Park, according to a social media post by the Friends of Fort De Soto Park.

If you do ever see an octopus, it’s important to give it every chance possible to survive, Carson said. The animals are semelparous, meaning they only mate once in their lifetime. If you find them in the water while diving or snorkeling, leave them be. Octopuses found on land usually have only a few minutes to survive.

“It’s very important that we keep the population high,” Carson said. Generally, the animals play an important role in keeping invertebrate populations at bay. Octopuses can feed on crabs, snails, clams and small fish.

Dead sea urchins on a beach
Martha Asencio-Rhine
Tampa Bay Times
Dead sea urchins littler the beach among shells and seaweed material on Tuesday in Pass-a-Grille.

Weather played a role in octopus arrival

Recent winds blowing toward Tampa Bay area beaches likely played a role in bringing the creatures closer to shore, as the Gulf of Mexico had been churning for more than 24 hours by the time Sweeney made his discovery.

The wind was pushing onshore in Pinellas County beginning about 5 a.m. on Sunday through Monday afternoon, according to Ross Giarratana, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tampa Bay. A steady 12 mph onshore wind blew most of Monday, with gusts as high as 20 mph, according to data Giarratana retrieved from the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

The ocean was stirred up during those winds: A gale warning was in effect for all coastal waters in Pinellas County through 2 p.m. on Sunday, Giarratana said. A gale warning occurs when there’s no tropical cyclone present, but winds can still gust between 39 mph and 54 mph.

As of Tuesday morning, Pass-a-Grille beach was still dotted with interesting species washed along the shoreline from the weekend’s weather: Shellfish and sand dollars, scores of dead sea urchins and vast strips of seaweed scattered the beach.

“We’ve had this straight west flow driving water from deeper out into the gulf closer to the west coast of Florida, so that would tend to favor bringing anything along in the water closer to the coast,” Giarratana said in an interview. “That could be anything from seaweed or even pieces of wood debris or other types of marine debris.”

Or even, perhaps, a bunch of tiny octopuses?

“I would imagine that the meteorology had a big part in why they washed ashore.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.