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The Day I Met an Octopus, I Lost My Mind

Humans have long been in awe of the mysterious and intelligent creatures. And they have reason to be.

Dorothy Woodend 31 May 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Meeting an octopus is a little like meeting a mythological creature.

In my rational mind, I know that octopuses are common in oceans around the world. I’ve seen a fair number of films that feature cephalopods, whether in documentary form or narrative. I’ve read plenty of articles about their peculiar attributes and looked at them very closely in order to draw them. But somehow none of this information prepared me for seeing one up close and personal. I lost my damn mind.

At the Vancouver Aquarium on a quiet Monday morning, only the resident creatures and aquarium staff are present. The place isn’t open to the public yet. It’s peaceful, hushed almost, except for the piercing mating calls of frogs and the occasional coughing bark from the sea lions. It’s a perfect time to meet Brando, the aquarium’s resident giant Pacific octopus.

At first glance, there’s not much to see. Octopuses are masters of camouflage, and the only thing that is visible of Brando is a single round eye, peeking out from a crevice in the rocks.

Because octopuses are nocturnal, Brando retreats to his favourite hiding spot when the lights are turned on and the humans return to the building in the morning, aquarium biologist Jeff Sha tells me. The sand beneath his den is littered with the hollowed-out shells of Dungeness crabs, an indication that Brando has been eating well and getting bigger.

The giant Pacific octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini, is the largest octopus species on Earth. With one of the most complex brains of any invertebrate, the species ranges from Alaska to California. Octopus curiosity has been well-known since the times of the Romans. Sha explains that this level of investigative spirit serves a practical purpose. Octopuses are always on the hunt for both food and suitable places to curl safely away from predators, so in the world of an octopus, intelligence is a means of survival.

Marvellous and strange

Captured in the waters off Ucluelet, near Beg Islands, B.C., Brando has been in situ at the Vancouver Aquarium since April 2023, during which time he has grown at a pace. Although the aquarium didn’t set out to procure a giant Pacific octopus, Brando’s arrival was, as Sha explains, a serendipitous coming together of “chance, permission from DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and habitat space in the aquarium.”

In the working area behind the public viewing gallery, a ladder leads up to the back of the tank that houses Brando. Suspended over the surface of the water is a single plank. Sha fetches a bucket filled with a frozen crab and clambers out onto the board, setting the crab at the edge of the water. It’s as though he’s calling a large dog for dinner. Brando unfurls from his hiding spot, eight arms splaying out in seemingly every direction at once. It is then that I lose my mind.

A large red octopus flares its tentacles in an aquarium tank, revealing white circular parts for suction under every limb.
Brando is a giant Pacific octopus, the largest octopus species on the planet. Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Aquarium.

Seeing him from less than a foot away, his sheer extraordinariness is, well, just that. Brando is amazing to witness, most especially his eyes. Cephalopods and humans are the only two species on the planet that share the same eye structure, so perhaps this helps explain the startling direction of his gaze. Everything else is marvellously strange, from his bright orange skin to the eight arms, snaking around, one wrapping around Sha’s forearm.

The largest giant Pacific octopus specimen measured a whopping 600 pounds, but the average is closer to 160. Stretched out, a fully grown animal can measure more than 30 feet across. Sha explains that when Brando stretches out across the expanse of his tank, the entire aquarium staff comes running to witness it.

No more than three arms at a time

Even at his relatively modest size, Brando has considerable power. Anyone who works regularly with octopuses is advised to never let one get more than three arms on you at the same time. As Sha explains, the three-arm rule is more about control than safety. Cephalopods aren’t likely to drag a human down into the depths to drown, though they’d be well within their rights to do so, given everything that we’ve subjected them to. Octopus farms are just the latest insult and injury to the species.

Spain and Portugal have been at the forefront of the movement to farm cephalopods. Asked whether this idea gives him any moral qualms, given octopuses’ purported intelligence, Sha’s answer is nuanced, philosophical even. Sentience exists at all levels in the animal kingdom, he says. Even fish feel pain, but the tendency to elevate some animals and abuse others is an innately human trait.

We’re happy to slaughter cows, but eating dogs will get you branded a cartoon villain. Sha was somewhat horrified by the idea proposed to flash-freeze octopuses as a means of ethically harvesting them in a farming scenario.

The intelligence of octopuses has been difficult to fully ascertain, as they have proven defiantly uncompliant in laboratory settings. But according to some estimates, they’re as smart as a three-year-old child or an extremely overachieving dog.

Their problem-solving skills are legendary, as is their ability to escape from the smallest aperture. Even in aquariums, their talent as escape artists is unparalleled. Although Brando hasn’t vamoosed from his tank, Sha was surprised to find him perched atop the plank that bisects the top of the enclosure one morning.

Busting myths, armed with three hearts

The mysterious and compelling qualities of octopuses render them ripe for all manner of folklore, including the popular notion that they have brains in each arm. Sha quickly dispels that by noting that we humans also can move our arms and legs independently, but doing so does not mean we have four other rudimentary brains in each of our limbs. The arms of an octopus do, however, have neuron bundles that enable them to control each of their tentacles.

Other romantic notions, like the idea that cephalopods communicate in colour or turn white when they’re dreaming, are also quickly put to rest. Sha explains that octopuses often turn white when they’re stressed.

But other things, like how octopuses have three hearts, are quite real. One heart circulates blood, while the other two pump blood to the animal’s gills.

An octopus’s diet primarily consists of crustaceans, so they have hard beaks that can break through crab shells with ease. Saliva, mixed with a form of venom, liquefies the insides of their prey, making a tasty, easy-to-slurp soup.

Given the inherent drama of his name, one might expect Brando the octopus to exhibit some thespian qualities. But Sha explains that Brando was found in an area with large patches of bryozoans and cup corals, and his name riffs off his original habitat.

Sha has worked with Brando for some time and says that the octopus is very good at communicating his moods. If he’s having a good day or a bad one, it is clear from his behaviour. “His personality has definitely developed,” says Sha, adding that it’s “become more apparent as he’s grown up here.”

Terrance, the other resident Pacific octopus, is currently sitting on a clutch of eggs, tucked away at the very back of the aquarium’s largest tank. Unlike Brando, who is relatively fearless, Terrance was extremely shy when she first came to the aquarium in April 2022, and had to be coaxed out of her different hiding places to be fed.

Although none of Terrance’s eggs are fertilized, she has entered the final stage of her life. Once females begin to brood, they stop eating and over the course of months begin to slowly disintegrate.

The millions of folks who watched the Netflix megahit documentary My Octopus Teacher will be familiar with this process.

Males of the species are also subject to the twinned processes of sex and death.

Resolutely wild

As solitary animals, octopuses are more apt to fight than to have sex if males and females encounter each other in the wild. But of course, amorous encounters do take place. Once a male has given his sperm receptacles, called spermatophores and located at the end of the sucker-less third arm on the right (called the hectocotylus arm), death follows anon.

Sha explains that females can retain the sperm for whenever they’re ready to reproduce. Thus, a female captured in the wild can make use of this stored sperm to fertilize her eggs and hatch over a million babies. Although the aquarium hasn’t yet faced this situation, it might present a few challenges.

The idea of a million baby octopuses hatching all of a sudden provides a momentary bit of surrealism. But the Seattle aquarium is the only one in the world that has successfully reared octopuses in captivity.

They are resolutely wild creatures. Even in aquarium settings, much less farming scenarios, there is a poignancy and pain to their captivity.

The experience of meeting Brando remains in my mind, even days after the encounter.

That meeting with another, very different form of intelligence offers a kind of escape from human pedantry into a different world: a liquid, shape-shifting existence, bounded by colour, movement and the clear hard rules of survival.  [Tyee]

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