Interview with an Octopus

Knowing what lurks under the surface does little to help me make out much more than the ripples of the water and the dark reflections off the rocks in the tank. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has two tanks to house their giant Pacific octopuses, kept separate to avoid fighting and mating, both of which can shorten their lives. An octopus’ arm-span tops eight feet in captivity—even more in the wild—so to my eyes the tank seems small. But chief aquarist Steve Brorsen assures me that octopuses spend nearly three quarters of their lives and most of each day hidden away in cramped dens. They seem content in their confinement, which allows them just enough space to stretch their arms while providing plenty of nooks and crannies where they can hide from the prying public.

Brorsen scans the surface of the water for our girl. His hands grip the edge of the tank lined in thick Astroturf: one of few surfaces that can’t be grabbed by the octopuses’ deft suckers and used to clamber out. Every inch of an octopus’ skin is covered in specialized cells containing pigments that expand and contract to mimic the colors around them, and octopuses can also wrinkle their skin to create intricate textures that blend seamlessly into rocks or coral. It only takes Brorsen a couple of seconds to find our female, but he is well practiced at scoping them out of their hiding spots.

She is perched on a rock in the far corner of the tank with her arms tucked into a tight ball. Her body is roughly the size of a basketball, deflated and stretched oblong. Brorsen is tall and quiet, with a stature well suited to the constant stretching across tanks that his job requires. He takes out a long plastic stick and skewers a shrimp, then reaches the treat to her. For a moment, no one moves. Then, slowly, the octopus unfurls one timid arm to reach for the shrimp. With our girl distracted by her prize, Brorsen tugs on the stick to draw her closer to us.

The moment she sees Brorsen, her color shifts rapidly from rock browns to stark white, then red, then white again. She is excited to see him. She rolls over onto her back, splaying her arms out like an eight-pointed star and exposing her bright white suckers and beaky mouth. Brorsen offers her one of his hands and she winds two arms around his wrist, pulling him closer and teasing his fingers with the sand-dollar size suckers closest to her mouth. She wriggles as she explores, tasting and toying with him.

It is as magical as anything I have ever witnessed. And then Brorsen asks me if I’d like to touch her.

I dip a few fingers into the water. I’m shocked by the cold—but knowing this species lives off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, I’m not sure why I expected a more tropical temperature. (Other species do live in warmer climates, and in fact, octopuses are some of the most diversely located marine species. An albino octopus species was recently discovered taking up residence near hydrothermal vents.)

I gently pet the very end of one of her arms, tapered into a fine point, her suckers here only small dots. She does not recognize my touch and recoils. I try again, touching her a bit more boldly this time. Her skin is far from slimy—more like wet velvet than the sticky surface I imagined. She is a creature divided, paying rapt attention to Brorsen with half her arms while deciding what to do with me with the others. She clearly is not thrilled to have to deal with me, but tolerates my touch, more or less.

Then, a lucky accident: Brorsen fumbles one of the shrimp he has been feeding her. I pick it up and deposit it on top of a large sucker a little further toward her center. She typically feeds herself by moving her entire arm toward her mouth, but this time, she shuffles the shrimp up her arm, passing it sucker to sucker. This little offering seems to have earned me some trust, and when I go to put my hand near her larger suckers this time, she greets me with more enthusiasm, sucking on my fingers and winding her arm up around my wrist.

It is only when my hands start to go numb in the cold water that I realize more than a few minutes have passed. We are long out of shrimp, and I am a giddy, giggling mess.

My reaction may have been a bit extreme, but I am not alone in my emotional connection with an octopus. Brorsen has fostered close relationships with other octopuses in the past, and this year-old female is far from the first one to fall in love with him. In fact, the reason I am here visiting Brorsen is because of something extraordinary that happened to him a few years ago.

As an aquarist at Monterey, Brorsen rotates exhibits once a year. During one rotation with the octopuses several years ago, Brorsen became particularly attached to one male octopus. They routinely played games around feeding time, including “catch the water”: a game of Brorsen’s invention which involved using his hand to squirt water in the air for the octopus to catch in its suckers. When Brorsen was rotated away to another exhibit, he grudgingly passed on the care of his octopuses to new aquarist.

But a few weeks later, Brorsen found he missed his octopuses and returned to the exhibit to say a quick hello. He dipped his hand into the familiar tank, and the young male reached up an arm to touch Brorsen’s hand. Octopuses are skilled at recognition, able to identify people by sight but even more easily by tasting with their suckers.

The moment the octopus’ sucker touched Brorsen’s hand, the octopus launched himself out of the tank, wrapping all eight arms around Brorsen’s neck and chest. Brorsen had to gently pry the enthusiastic—and clingy—octopus off his body, placing him back in its tank.

I have a difficult time imagining exactly how I would react to a 65-pound giant octopus flinging itself at my face. But as Brorsen tells the story, he smiles. He knew the gesture was not at all aggressive. If anything, he says, “It was like a hug.” A wet, sticky, eight-legged hug.

But even as Brorsen tells the story with obvious delight, he holds back. He hesitates to characterize what happened as anything more than “like a hug.” To call it an actual hug would be projecting, he says, and he hesitates to make assumptions.

This is a revised introductory excerpt from my master’s thesis at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. Interview with an Octopus is a 10,000 word essay using the controversy of whether octopuses have “personalities” to explore bigger scientific and philosophical questions. Are humans really all that special? And can we ever hope to experience the world objectively, outside the lens of human experience?