My Octopus Friend

'The Octopus and Me': One-on-One With Mote's Curious Mollusk

The life of this octopus is structured around play—it needs to keep its mind active.

By Elizabeth Djinis January 1, 2021 Published in the January-February 2021 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Playtime for Mote’s octopus.

Playtime for Mote’s octopus.

“Would you like to meet it?” asks Mote Marine Aquarium biologist Kerry Lee as she gestures to the tank in front of us.

I am at Mote’s aquarium on the opposite side of the glass from where visitors are standing. "It" is Mote’s resident octopus. I step onto a small enclosure and peer down into the blue expanse of the tank. I’m a little nervous. How will the animal react to me?

But the octopus gives me little time for jitters. Instead, it shoots up and says hello. It clasps its arm—the proper terminology for the invertebrate’s appendages—around Lee first, running its suckers, the suction cup circles on its arms, along her wrist. It recognizes her, using its senses of touch and taste to understand its environment.

It comes for me next. And I use the term “for,” because the octopus can sense that I am a foreign object in its tank. It wraps its limbs around my arm, floating at the top of the tank, and it—get this—pulls.

I scream. Lee laughs. “This particular animal is handsy,” she says. “It really likes to pull.”

I was inspired to meet the mollusk after watching My Octopus Teacher, a Netflix documentary that follows a man’s extraordinary friendship with an octopus while diving near his home in South Africa. I wondered if other octopuses (Merriam-Webster says the plural of octopus can be octopuses or octopi) are as curious as the one in the film. Can they all form relationships with humans?

Mote’s octopus is a day octopus, which is found in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It hunts during the day, which makes it adept at camouflage.

This octopus, found in Hawaii, is small, maybe the size of a large human fist (without its arms), and has a purplish hue with small raised white polka dots on its skin.

When I ask Lee if she has a personal connection with the octopus, she dismisses the premise. “That’s an anthropomorphizing question,” she says. “It definitely recognizes people. They like to feel around and taste me while I’m working with them.”

The life of this octopus is structured around play, or what Lee refers to as enrichment. Octopuses are largely solitary animals that spend most of their time in the wild either catching their prey or hiding from predators, she explains. With the absence of those factors in an aquarium, octopuses need to keep their minds active. Play is how they do that. Mote’s mollusk has an entire wall of toys that resembles a toddler’s playroom, with Lego pieces, screw-top jars and a toy submarine.

Lee, who has worked with several octopuses at Mote, says they have particular toy preferences. Some prefer to twist the tops of jars and squeeze their bodies into the jar’s cavity. The invertebrates are so flexible that they can shrink down to the size of their tiny beak, where they crunch their food. Whether this octopus is a male or a female, Lee doesn’t know. The process to “sex” an octopus can be invasive and isn’t important in an aquarium setting.

And it will come as no surprise to viewers of My Octopus Teacher that octopuses have a relatively short life span. Mote’s day octopus will only live for 10 to 12 months. It’s sad, I think. They prepare to mate, and then they die. When the animals are nearing the end of their lives, Lee says, it’s obvious. They produce their eggs or sperm, and then they hunker down and stop eating.

One thing surprises me. Lee has not named this octopus. I want to relate to this odd, playful creature in a way that I can understand. And, really, I ask Lee, what is the harm? Isn’t there some benefit in bestowing human emotions and qualities on our animal friends? Won’t that incentivize us to take better care of them, because they are sentient creatures just like us?

The problem, Lee says, is in oversimplifying their behaviors. Lee doesn’t want to be tempted to refer to the octopus as “happy” or “sad” when it could really be having a reaction to something in the water. There’s a risk of misinterpreting real signals from the octopus on its physical state as a signal a human might emit on their emotional one.

And yet, I can’t help but call it “cute.” I apologize to Lee. She laughs in agreement. Even she calls the octopus cute sometimes.

I look at the octopus again. It’s playing with a Lego toy, probing to get the shrimp that Lee has hidden inside.

The octopus is curious about its surroundings and food-motivated. I smile. I can relate to that.

Visitors can view the octopus habitat in the main indoor gallery at Mote Aquarium.

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