Pacific octopuses show us that when we damage our seas, we kill thinking, feeling creatures whose minds might be startlingly like our own.
JUST off Seattle’s coastline lives something more alien, fascinating and emotionally appealing than any science-fiction space character.
It has unearthly superpowers: It can taste with its skin; it can resist a pull 1,000 times its own weight; it can change color and shape, squirt ink and inject venom; it can grow to more than 100 pounds, yet pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.
I’m speaking of the giant Pacific octopus — a creature that lives wildly right outside your doorstep. But you’d have to go to outer space, or to science fiction, to find a being more unlike us humans. Yet — and this is the most exciting aspect of this sea-dwelling “alien” — an octopus can recognize individual humans, even make friends with them. Octopuses are remarkably smart.
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At the New England Aquarium, I got to know giant Pacific octopuses that, when I opened the top of the tank, would look me in the eye, turn color with emotion and slide over to my side of the tank to reach out of the water and grasp my arms and hands with dozens of strong, white, questing suckers. But they didn’t like everyone. Once I brought a visitor and one octopus squirted her straight in the face with saltwater. Another time, my octopus friend embraced me with a few of her arms, while at the same time used her other arms to repel another visitor.
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Experiments at the Seattle Aquarium, conducted by Roland Anderson and his colleague, University of Lethbridge psychologist Jennifer Mather, proved that octopuses recognize individual people, even when those people were identically dressed. Octopuses quickly learned to approach people who fed them, and they moved away from people who touched them with a bristly stick.
Though this surprised some scientists, octopuses’ intelligence and personalities were well-known to octopus keepers, who recognize that the octopuses in their care are individuals, too. This is reflected in the names keepers give them. At Seattle Aquarium, one octopus was so shy she was named Emily Dickinson because she hid all day long. Her keepers eventually released her into Puget Sound, where she came from. Another was named Leisure Suit Larry because the minute you peeled one of his arms off you, he’d glom on to you with two others.
Octopuses are marvelously dexterous and enjoy manipulating objects: They open jars; they love puzzles. To keep smart octopuses from becoming bored, keepers refer to an “octopus enrichment manual,” which recommends that keepers give octopuses the same toys to play with that we give children. They put together and pull apart Legos. They dismantle Mr. Potato Head. Roland Anderson found that octopuses like pill bottles (whose childproof caps they could easily open, a task difficult for even some people) and they even documented an octopus bouncing a pill bottle off a wall the way a child would bounce a ball. Using her siphon, with which the animal jets through the sea, one octopus would push the bottle into a stream of water circulating through the tank so that the bottle would come floating back to her, again and again — she did this 20 times.
It’s no wonder that people who know the charms of octopuses celebrate these creatures. A group of Seattle area divers came to know a particularly friendly wild female they called Olive, who would accept fish from their hands. One day, they discovered that Olive had laid eggs — as female octopuses do, just once, near the end of their lives. For months, the divers would visit her in her den as she cleaned, aerated and guarded her tens of thousands of rice-grain-sized eggs, hanging like clusters of grapes from the ceiling of her den. Divers videoed the eggs as they hatched, and Olive, with the last of her waning strength, used her siphon to blow her babies out of the den and into the open ocean.
In 2012, I read with dismay about a teen who killed an 80-pound giant Pacific octopus at Seattle’s Cove 2, a popular dive site. Outrage from the local diving community and from octopus lovers from around the world prompted a push to make the site a state-protected marine park.
This is as it should be. Even though a legal fishery exists for giant Pacific octopuses, eating an octopus holds as much appeal for me as killing E.T. for lunch.
But the octopuses of Cove 2 — and those all over the world — need protection. As the hideous oil spill off Santa Barbara’s coast cruelly shows, even the powerful ocean can be rendered delicate, sometimes in a matter of minutes. Our giant Pacific octopuses show us that when we damage our seas, we not only poison a resource: We kill thinking, feeling creatures whose minds might be startlingly like our own.