Octopuses or Octopi?
I recently spent three days at Hood Canal, at the family cabin of a close friend I’ve known since I was fifteen. There’s something so comfortable about being in the presence of someone you’ve known for so long. It’s also interesting to watch how someone you know so well has interacted with and been perceived by the world. It’s also poignant to see the ways in which life has taken a bite out of each other’s flesh, and the resiliency with which we’ve handled such challenges. But all the life experiences each of us have had since our teenage years are in many ways irrelevant, since our true characters shine through despite the window dressings we’ve added to our personas over the years.
My friend’s cabin sits on the edge of the water at the hook of Hood Canal, near Tahuya. A dirt path leads to the gravelly beach just a hundred yards away. The cabin was originally the milking room for the dairy farm that once stood there. It is small, cozy, modest, and perfect.
My friend loves rituals. Every afternoon at 4:30 she puts a couple bottles of IPA and glass mugs into the freezer, and when they’re slushy we go sit in chaise lounges on the concrete bulkhead built by her grandfather, beneath a large Madrona tree, overlooking the water.
We spend these visits reading and laughing. This time, I brought along “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery; I knew from my scuba diving days that Hood Canal is a habitat for the Giant Pacific Octopus. While I’d encountered the occasional octopus while diving, I didn’t know much about them, and was curious. Besides, I haven’t dived in twenty years, and these creatures had fallen off my radar.
For days after finishing Sy Montgomery’s beautiful book (I cried at the end!), I was obsessed. What other creature is more alien and mysterious, more different from great apes, than an octopus? I pored over websites such as The Cephalopod Page, the Giant Pacific Octopus Husbandry Manual of BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and watched countless YouTube videos. However, I’ve come late to the Octopus Party, since it turns out there are a lot of other people obsessed with the octopus as well. One writer observes that the octopus is second only to the cat in popularity on the internet. https://slate.com/technology/2018/03/against-the-octopus-the-overrated-cephalopod.html
So, here’s what I learned.
There are around 250 species of octopus, and the largest is the giant Pacific octopus, which we have in Puget Sound (it ranges from Alaska to California). The giant Pacific octopus is one of the fastest growing animals in the world, hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice to a size longer and heavier than a man in three years. The largest on record weighed 300 pounds and had an arm span of 32 feet.
A male giant Pacific octopus has 1600 suckers on its arms, and the largest of its suckers can be 3 inches in diameter and lift 30 pounds.
Octopus have venom, a beak like a parrot, and ink. They can taste with its skin, and change color and shape instantaneously.
They’re extremely intelligent. Yes, we’ve all heard this, but just how intelligent are they? Well, they can recognize and differentiate between human faces, demonstrate affection to some people and active dislike others. They play with toys, open lidded jars and crave mental stimulation, have long and short-term memory and are able to solve and remember puzzles and problems through trial and error and experience.
We primates are drunk with wonder at our own intelligence. This arrogance blinds us to recognizing intelligence in other species. It makes for a deep loneliness and soul-deadening isolation, and leads to environmental degradation.
Whenever I read about the startlingly high intelligence of other creatures, it reminds me that we humans are not alone in the world, and that all species are interconnected. This is an extremely comforting thought to me.
By the way, the scientifically correct plural is octopuses, not octopi. It turns out you can’t put a Latin ending -i- on a Greek word, such as octopus.
I’m thinking of doing a series of octopus paintings to explore my fascination. Fellow artists, have you depicted octopuses in your work? Does anyone have a favorite piece of octopus art? I’m especially fond of Brad Woodfin’s work, which you can see here: http://www.bradwoodfin.com