Shortly after I first moved to the coast, I signed up for an Octopus Encounter at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Standing in the back room next to the open octopus tank, I confess I was feeling just a wee bit creeped out. I had grown up watching cartoons in which the octopus surfaces from the dark to grab some unsuspecting soul and drag them to the bottom, never to be seen again. I realized the Giant Pacific Octopus in the tank next to me probably wasn’t going to do that but …
Meanwhile, the octopus expert was telling us all kinds of interesting octopus trivia. Like the fact that their skin changes color with their mood, or that the only hard, inflexible part of their body is their beak. If their beak can fit through something, so can the octopus. They’re smart, curious, even affectionate.
I was beginning to relax and enjoy the unique experience. And that’s when I felt the wet, cold something on my arm and looked down to see the octopus’s arm draped over mine. Yes, for a moment I feared I might forget my house training. But the guide quickly reassured me that this friendly fellow was simply curious and that I should consider myself lucky to attract his attention. Well, OK, I did like being singled out - kind of - though I don’t know that you could say I was exactly relaxed about it. But I left the aquarium that day thinking that octopuses were one of the most fascinating animals I’d encountered.
And clearly, Sy Montgomery agrees. She’s the author of “The Soul of an Octopus,” the 2015 National Book Award finalist for adult non-fiction, and now the choice for this year’s Newport Reads. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but it’s certainly on my list (you can get a taste of it, as I did, here: http://symontgomery.com/soul-of-an-octopus)
As always, Newport Reads will be about more than just reading. There’s a panel discussion with Oregon Coast aquarists on April 7 at 11:30 am at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (also home to the OctoCam, which you can view at https://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor-center/exhibits/octocam) and on April 12 at the Newport PAC, from 7 to 9 pm, Sy Montgomery herself will give a talk and answer questions. And of course, there will be books to buy and have signed.
Montgomery’s first encounter with an octopus was with Athena at the New England Aquarium. She writes, “I had the distinct impression she was as curious about me as I was about her…. She was a marine invertebrate, I a terrestrial vertebrate, and yet across a chasm of half a billion years we were having, I felt, a meeting of the minds.”
Lance Hayes, Oregon Coast aquarist understands exactly. Hayes helps care for the resident octopuses (not octopi as I was corrected; likewise, not tentacles, but arms), Theo, Cleo and Leo - AKA the Theo, Cleo, Leo Trio. There’s also Little Bean, a Red Octopus, which is the size of a tennis ball.
“I do an encounter every day by myself,” Hayes said. “They will be sleeping in their tank and I’ll come over and put my arms in and they immediately recognize me, go on their back and open their arms up. They’ll expose their underside and want to play. I will drag my fingers between their suction cups. I’ll give them a ball and they will pull it down to the bottom and let it pop to the surface. They are very affectionate. They love to play.
“They are very intelligent animals. I’ll offer them puzzles to solve in order to get their food. Like a jar with a lid on it or a hinged box or hamster balls. They have both long and short-term memory. After the first time, they will remember how they did it, but do it faster. I time them sometimes. Toys that originally took five to six minutes to open, after a week, they can solve in a minute of so.”
Octopus Encounters at the Aquarium were put on hold so renovations could be made to the facility, but I’m told they are aiming to start them again soon - possibly Memorial Day. It’s already on my calendar and I encourage you to consider the same. Until then, pick up “The Soul of an Octopus,” take in the panel discussion and author presentation. I think you’ll be as fascinated by octopuses as I am.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.