He’e – Octopus

Biology Connections – Ike Noeau:

There are two species of octopus commonly found in Hawaii, the small brown he’e (day octopus) which roams the shallow reef at day, and the larger, red he‘e-mākoko (night octopus) which hunts at night. Both species feed on crustaceans, molluscs, fish, and anything else they can get their arms on. Octopus are incredible ‘intelligent’ animals with sophisticated nervous systems including sensitive eyes and a central brain. They have the remarkable ability to change skin colour to camouflage into the background, can move by crawling on their 8 arms or by jet propulsion, and can eject black ink in order to confuse predators and escape. He’e also have three hearts, two sets of gills, and completely lack bones so that they can fit into tight spaces. With a central brain in their head, he’e also have brains in each of its 8 arms so that each arm can move on its own and catch prey without using the central brain. These arms also have the ability to grow back if they are chopped off. He’e usually only live for a year as their lifespan is limited by their reproduction, males die shortly after reproduction and females die a few months after hatching their eggs. He’e live in dens which you can identify from piles of shells outside. Compared to the giant (90lb) octopus of the North Pacific, the Hawaiian octopi are fairly small reaching a maximum of 10lb. Perhaps the strangest of all sea critters, we are finding out more and more about he’e each year and have lots to learn from these remarkable creatures. 

Cultural Connections – Mo’olelo:

Kanaloa, closely associated with Kane and one of the four major Hawaiian gods, would often take the form of he’e. Kanaloa is associated with long-distance voyaging, the ocean, and healing. A hard animal to catch, the octopus required creative fishing techniques. Hawaiians would lure an Octopus with a decorated cowrie shell, which would be attached to lines up to 700 ft long and dangled in the water. The cowrie shell tricked the Octopus into a tasty meal, but once they grabbed a hold of the shell they would be pulled to the surface and taken into the canoe.


Cowrie shell



He’e are first featured in line 185 of the Hawaiian creation chant, and also in line 615,

(185) Hanau ka He‘e noho i kai
Born is the He‘e [octopus] living in the sea

(615) Hanau o Kanaloa, o ka he‘e-haunawela ia
Born was Kanaloa the hot-striking octopus