ScienceSeptember 29, 2018

Was the octopus-seal vs kayak viral video a set-up? A Spinoff investigation


Together with a team of crack UK investigators, Hayden Donnell investigates the origin story of one of New Zealand’s most successful viral videos.

It was the perfect viral moment. Kyle Mulinder was innocently paddling his kayak in the deep blue water off the coast of Kaikoura. The water was calm. Tranquil. Suddenly a seal erupted out of the ocean and slapped him violently across the face with a half-eaten octopus.

Mulinder is a GoPro ambassador and was filming the attack. His 15-second clip took off immediately after he put it on Instagram. It was posted on Twitter and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times. Covered by The New York Times. The BBC. A lot of its appeal was its unlikeliness: the chances of kayaking the ocean and being slapped by an octopus had to have been infinitesimally small; similar to walking down the street and finding a winning Lotto ticket in the gutter. The chances of being slapped by an octopus while filming what is essentially an ad for the new GoPro were even lower. Was this video too good to be true? Had Mulinder and his team, in fact, deliberately put themselves in the path of a likely octopus strike?

No news organisations appeared to have asked these questions, despite the video featuring a GoPro logo at the beginning, and apparently being part of a package that included professional drone shots. Instead, they seemed content to haul in the video streams, with GoPro surely elated to be mentioned in some of the biggest publications in the world as its high quality video footage was replayed over and over again to content-hungry clickers.

For the last 24 hours I have been accumulating information on the real story behind the octo-slap together with a team of UK investigators: cephalopod expert Elle Hunt and social media scientist Jono Hutchison. We are now ready to present our findings to the public.

Let’s look at the first account of the incident. Mulinder’s Instagram post on the octopus strike began with the words “wrong place, right time”. He said the footage was taken after his group, apparently at random, spotted an octopus fighting with a seal. “Before we knew it the fight came to us and well the rest is slap to the face,” he said.

Future accounts added to the impression this was a totally chance encounter. The New York Times story portrayed the strike as total happenstance. “The octopus was fighting for its life. The seal was fighting for its lunch. Kyle Mulinder just happened to be there,” it began.

But did Mulinder just happen to be there, or had he used expert local knowledge to put himself in the so-called wrong place?

Before we go further, a word about octopus feeding behaviour. Co-investigator Hunt is an octopode enthusiast, and has written for The Guardian on her love for the surprisingly intelligent cephalopods. She had personally witnessed seals trying to dismember octopodes by smashing them against the sea for long periods of time. It was perfectly plausible, Hunt argued, that you could see a seal slapping the surface with an octopus and reach it by kayak before it succeeded in its bloody mission. What’s more, with seals being known to keep to a certain area and octopuses being a favoured source of food, you could even be on watch for the behaviour.

Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine, a University of Auckland biologist, backed Hunt’s analysis. “I’ve seen, over the course of 10, 15 minutes or more, a seal slowly removing each tentacle of an octopus.” She has studied seals near Kaikoura, and said the animals typically snatch octopodes off the rocks and bash them apart in a relatively contained area.

A prolonged attack in a contained area sounded like an easy target for a group of kayakers eager to put themselves in the path of an octopus strike. I put it to Coastal-Marine Research Group director Dr Karen Stockin that Mulinder and his fellow kayakers could have purposely moved their kayaks into the seal’s feeding area. This goes on for some time as they feed so very possible to have kayaked to the centre of the action – though still quite lucky to have nailed this shot,” she said.

Mulinder’s team would have had the time to manoeuver themselves into the path of the seal, but the question remained of how they knew an octopus attack was likely to take place. Co-investigator Hutchison looked at social media posts taken in Kaikoura over the last week or so. One of them, a selfie with How To Dad’s Jordan Watson by Instagram user Conner Stapler, appeared to have been taken on the trip where the octopus attack occurred.

It turned out Stapler was guiding Mulinder’s trip as part of his job with Kaikoura Kayaks. Looking back through his Instagram, another post popped out. Stapler had posted a picture of a seal attack on an octopus in October 2017. This incident was also being observed by kayakers.

It seemed Stapler knew where seal vs octopode battles were likely to take place. Had he guided Mulinder into one’s path? I called him, and he acknowledged he’d been hoping to come across a fight during his trip with the GoPro crew. “I couldn’t guarantee I was going to go out there and find the seals feeding but it was definitely in the back of my mind that it was what I wanted to find and come across.”

I asked whether Mulinder had seen the octopus strike and gone into the fray hoping to either be slapped by an octopus, or come close to an octopus slap. “I think Kyle was definitely trying to get close but I definitely don’t think he was trying to get that close … [He] definitely wasn’t trying to engineer the octopus slap. It was definitely a freak accident.”

There was only one person who knew the full truth of this situation: Mulinder himself. I called him hoping for some answers. He denied hoping to be at the centre of a seal strike when he set out with Kaikoura Kayaks, saying he didn’t know of Stapler’s previous octopus encounter.

“I was hoping for dolphins or orca or anything cool. It’s Kaikoura. Anything cool can happen, especially wildlife.”

He said the octopus strike happened after he spotted the fight from 10 to 15m away. I put it to him that he had gone in close to the seal-on-cephalopod battle in an attempt to capture some viral content.

“No. Not at all. The guide was doing a pretty good job of keeping us at distance. We were just sitting back and watching an awesome show happening in front of us. I do a lot of work with wildlife and I don’t want to be that prick tourist that goes up and ruins their day by being up close.” Undeterred, I continued my line of questioning. Had he tried to engineer an octopus strike in any way? Had he thought ‘I’d quite like to get hit in the face by an octopus’? He paused for an uncomfortably long time.

“I don’t even know how to answer that mate,” he said, finally. “Would you like to get hit in the face by an octopus?” He went on. “I think there are better things to do on the planet than be hit in the face by an octopus.”

Look, he does have a point. But these are the facts:

  1. Mulinder was taken to an area where seals are known to feed on octopodes, by a person who’d previously guided kayakers into seal vs octopus fight encounters.
  2. They saw a seal fighting an octopus and moved close to the battle.

Those factors both served to increase the chances of Mulinder being hit by an octopus. Instead of being like finding a winning Lotto ticket in the gutter, it’s more like winning $20 on Instant Kiwi or seeing 3.33 when you look at the clock.

Having said that, this is another fact: a man was slapped in the face with an octopus, and no matter the circumstances, that’s still a amazing thing. To be honest, this investigation has left me feeling ashamed. This modern world is often dark and terrifying. It needs more wonder, more laughter, more octopus strikes. And if the footage of them is provided by influencers making ads for GoPro, does anyone care?

As Mulinder put it before justifiably hanging up on me: “Dude, we went out sea kayaking. We saw a seal fighting an octopus. The seal then came over and it smacked me in the face. That is crazy random. That is crazy and random and that is what has happened. And if you want to make anything more of it, that’s on you.”

Keep going!