Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and author of twenty acclaimed books of nonfiction for adults and children, including the National Book Award finalist The Soul of an Octopus and the memoir The Good Good Pig, a New York Times bestseller. The recipient of numerous honors, including lifetime achievement awards from the Humane Society and the New England Booksellers Association, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, border collie, and flock of chickens.
The Soul of an Octopus CHAPTER ONE
Encountering the Mind of a Mollusk
On a rare, warm day in mid-March, when the snow was melting into mud in New Hampshire, I traveled to Boston, where everyone was strolling along the harbor or sitting on benches licking ice cream cones. But I quit the blessed sunlight for the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium. I had a date with a giant Pacific octopus.
I knew little about octopuses—not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus). But what I did know intrigued me. Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. This bore out what scant experience I had already had; like many who visit octopuses in public aquariums, I’ve often had the feeling that the octopus I was watching was watching me back, with an interest as keen as my own.
How could that be? It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. Their bodies aren’t organized like ours. We go: head, body, limbs. They go: body, head, limbs. Their mouths are in their armpits—or, if you prefer to liken their arms to our lower, instead of upper, extremities, between their legs. They breathe water. Their appendages are covered with dexterous, grasping suckers, a structure for which no mammal has an equivalent.
And not only are octopuses on the opposite side of the great vertebral divide that separates the backboned creatures such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from everything else; they are classed within the invertebrates as mollusks, as are slugs and snails and clams, animals that are not particularly renowned for their intellect. Clams don’t even have brains.
More than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the one leading to humans separated. Was it possible, I wondered, to reach another mind on the other side of that divide?
Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other. They seem completely alien, and yet their world—the ocean—comprises far more of the Earth (70 percent of its surface area; more than 90 percent of its habitable space) than does land. Most animals on this planet live in the ocean. And most of them are invertebrates.
I wanted to meet the octopus. I wanted to touch an alternate reality. I wanted to explore a different kind of consciousness, if such a thing exists. What is it like to be an octopus? Is it anything like being a human? Is it even possible to know?
So when the aquarium’s director of public relations met me in the lobby and offered to introduce me to Athena, the octopus, I felt like a privileged visitor to another world. But what I began to discover that day was my own sweet blue planet—a world breathtakingly alien, startling, and wondrous; a place where, after half a century of life on this earth, much of it as a naturalist, I would at last feel fully at home.
Athena’s lead keeper isn’t in. My heart sinks; not just anyone can open up the octopus tank, and for good reason. A giant Pacific octopus—the largest of the world’s 250 or so octopus species—can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male’s three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific octopus has 1,600 of them. An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, an octopus can take the opportunity to escape from an open tank, and an escaped octopus is a big problem for both the octopus and the aquarium.
Happily, another aquarist, Scott Dowd, will help me. A big guy in his early forties with a silvery beard and twinkling blue eyes, Scott is the senior aquarist for the Freshwater Gallery, which is down the hall from Cold Marine, where Athena lives. Scott first came to the aquarium as a baby in diapers on its opening day, June 20, 1969, and basically never left. He knows almost every animal in the aquarium personally.
Athena is about two and a half years old and weighs roughly 40 pounds, Scott explains, as he lifts the heavy lid covering her tank. I mount the three short steps of a small movable stair and lean over to see. She stretches about five feet long. Her head—by “head,” I mean both the actual head and the mantle, or body, because that’s where we mammals expect an animal’s head to be—is about the size of a small watermelon. “Or at least a honeydew,” says Scott. “When she first came, it was the size of a grapefruit.” The giant Pacific octopus is one of the fastest-growing animals on the planet. Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years.
By the time Scott has propped open the tank cover, Athena has already oozed from the far corner of her 560-gallon tank to investigate us. Holding to the corner with two arms, she unfurls the others, her whole body red with excitement, and reaches to the surface. Her white suckers face up, like the palm of a person reaching out for a handshake.
“May I touch her?” I ask Scott.
“Sure,” he says. I take off my wristwatch, remove my scarf, roll up my sleeves, and plunge both arms elbow-deep into the shockingly cold 47°F water.
Twisting, gelatinous, her arms boil up from the water, reaching for mine. Instantly both my hands and forearms are engulfed by dozens of soft, questing suckers.
Not everyone would like this. The naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. Victor Hugo imagined such an event as an unmitigated horror leading to certain doom. “The spectre lies upon you; the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away,” Hugo wrote in Toilers of the Sea. “The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to the victim with innumerable hideous mouths. . . .” Fear of the octopus lies deep in the human psyche. “No animal is more savage in causing the death of man in the water,” Pliny the Elder wrote in Naturalis Historia, circa AD 79, “for it struggles with him by coiling round him and it swallows him with sucker-cups and drags him asunder. . . .”
But Athena’s suction is gentle, though insistent. It pulls me like an alien’s kiss. Her melon-size head bobs to the surface, and her left eye—octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands—swivels in its socket to meet mine. Her black pupil is a fat hyphen in a pearly globe. Its expression reminds me of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses: serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.
“She’s looking right at you,” Scott says.
As I hold her glittering gaze, I instinctively reach to touch her head. “As supple as leather, as tough as steel, as cold as night,” Hugo wrote of the octopus’s flesh; but to my surprise, her head is silky and softer than custard. Her skin is flecked with ruby and silver, a night sky reflected on the wine-dark sea. As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus; in cuttlefish, close relatives of octopus, females turn white when they encounter a fellow female, someone whom they need not fight or flee.
It is possible that Athena, in fact, knows I am female. Female octopuses, like female humans, possess estrogen; she could be tasting and recognizing mine. Octopuses can taste with their entire bodies, but this sense is most exquisitely developed in their suckers. Athena’s is an exceptionally intimate embrace. She is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone, and blood beneath. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before.
And she seems as curious about me as I am about her. Slowly, she transfers her grip on me from the smaller, outer suckers at the tips of her arms to the larger, stronger ones nearer her head. I am now bent at a 90-degree angle, folded like a half-open book, as I stand on the little step stool. I realize what is happening: She is pulling me steadily into her tank.
How happily I would go with her, but alas, I would not fit. Her lair is beneath a rocky overhang, into which she can flow like water, but I cannot, constrained as I am by bones and joints. The water in her tank would come to chest height on me, if I were standing up; but the way she is pulling me, I would be upside down, headfirst in the water, and soon facing the limitations of my air-hungry lungs. I ask Scott if I should try to detach from her grip and he gently pulls us apart, her suckers making popping sounds like small plungers as my skin is released.
“Octopus?! Aren’t they monsters?” my friend Jody Simpson asked me in alarm, as we hiked with our dogs the next day. “Weren’t you scared?” Her question reflected less an ignorance of the natural world than a wide knowledge of Western culture.
A horror of giant octopuses and their kin, giant squid, has animated Western art forms from thirteenth-century Icelandic legends to twentieth-century American films. The massive “hafgufa” who “swallows men and ships and whales and everything it can reach” in the Old Icelandic saga Orvar-Odds is surely based on some kind of tentacled mollusk, and gave rise to the myth of the kraken. French sailors’ reports of giant octopuses attacking their ship off the coast of Angola inspired one of the most lasting images of octopus in modern memory, one that is still tattooed on sailors’ arms: Mollusk expert Pierre Denys de Montfort’s iconic pen-and-wash drawing of 1801 shows a giant octopus rising from the ocean, its arms twisting in great loops all the way to the top of a schooner’s three masts. He claimed the existence of at least two kinds of giant octopus, one of which, he concluded, was surely responsible for the disappearance of no fewer than ten British warships that mysteriously vanished one night in 1782. (To Montfort’s public embarrassment, a survivor later revealed that they were really lost in a hurricane.)
In 1830, Alfred Tennyson published a sonnet about a monstrous octopus whose “Unnumber’d and enormous polypi / Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.” And of course an octopus was the nemesis-star of Jules Verne’s 1870 French science-fiction novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Though the octopus becomes a giant squid in the 1954 film of the same name, the man who shot the underwater sequences for the original film in 1916, John Williamson, said this about the novel’s original villain: “A man-eating shark, a giant poison-fanged moray, a murderous barracuda, appear harmless, innocent, friendly and even attractive when compared to the octopus. No words can adequately describe the sickening horror one feels when from some dark mysterious lair, the great lidless eyes of the octopus stare at one. . . . One’s very soul seems to shrink beneath their gaze, and cold perspiration beads the brow.”
Eager to defend the octopus against centuries of character assassination, I replied to my friend, “Monsters? Not at all!” Dictionary definitions of monster always mention the words large, ugly, and frightening. To me, Athena was as beautiful and benign as an angel. Even “large” is up for debate where octopuses are concerned. The largest species, the giant Pacific, isn’t as big as it used to be. An octopus with an arm span of more than 150 feet may have once existed. But the largest octopus listed by The Guinness Book of Records weighed 300 pounds and boasted an arm span stretching 32 feet. In 1945, a much heavier octopus captured off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, was reported to weigh 402 pounds; disappointingly, a photo of this animal displayed with a man for size comparison suggests a radial span of only 20 to 22 feet. But even these modern giants hardly measure up to their close molluscan relative, the colossal squid. A recent specimen of this species, captured by a New Zealand boat fishing off Antarctica, weighed more than 1,000 pounds and stretched more than 30 feet long. These days, lovers of monsters lament that the biggest octopuses seem to have been captured more than half a century ago.
As I described Athena’s grace, her gentleness, her apparent friendliness, Jody was skeptical. A huge, slimy cephalopod covered with suckers qualified as a monster in her book. “Well,” I conceded, changing tacks, “being a monster is not necessarily a bad thing.”
I’ve always harbored a fondness for monsters. Even as a child, I had rooted for Godzilla and King Kong instead of for the people trying to kill them. It had seemed to me that these monsters’ irritation was perfectly reasonable. Nobody likes to be awakened from slumber by a nuclear explosion, so it was no wonder to me Godzilla was crabby; as for King Kong, few men would blame him for his attraction to pretty Fay Wray. (Though her screaming would have eventually put off anyone less patient than a gorilla.)
If you took the monsters’ point of view, everything they did made perfect sense. The trick was learning to think like a monster.
After our embrace, Athena had floated back to her lair; I staggered down the three stairs of the step stool. I stood for a moment, almost dizzy, and caught my breath. The only word I could manage was “wow.”
“The way she presented her head to you was unusual,” said Scott. “I was surprised.” He told me that the last two octopuses who lived here, Truman and, before him, George, would only offer their arms to a visitor—not the head.
Athena’s behavior was particularly surprising given her personality. Truman and George were laid-back octopuses, but Athena had earned her name, that of the Greek goddess of war and strategy. She was a particularly feisty octopus: very active, and prone to excitement, which she showed by turning her skin bumpy and red.
Octopuses are highly individual. This is often reflected in the names keepers give them. At the Seattle Aquarium, one giant Pacific octopus was named Emily Dickinson because she was so shy that she spent her days hiding behind her tank’s backdrop; the public almost never saw her. Eventually she was released into Puget Sound, where she had originally been caught. Another was named Leisure Suit Larry—the minute a keeper peeled one of his questing arms off his or her body, two more would attach in its place. A third octopus earned the name Lucretia McEvil, because she constantly dismantled everything in her tank.
Octopuses realize that humans are individuals too. They like some people; they dislike others. And they behave differently toward those they know and trust. Though a bit leery of visitors, George had been relaxed and friendly with his keeper, senior aquarist Bill Murphy. Before I came, I had watched a video of the two of them together that the aquarium had posted on ...