Imagine for a moment a sentient being that’s radically unlike a human: No bones, numerous limbs that can “taste” you, a slimy body that can squirt through small holes, a mysterious intelligence. This is not science fiction. This is the giant Pacific octopus, one of the many secrets of Puget Sound.
Writer Sy Montgomery made it a personal goal to get as close as she could to one of these large cephalopods for a new book, "The Soul Of An Octopus."
In fact she spent so much time visiting one at the New England Aquarium that the place became almost her second home. The first giant Pacific octopus that she met up close was named Athena.
"So the keeper opened the tank and this 40-pound animal turned bright red with excitement and slid over to meet me,” Montgomery told KUOW’s Marcie Sillman. “Her eye rotated in its socket and fixed on my face, and then I said, ‘Can I touch her?’ And they said, ‘yeah OK.’
“So I plunged my hands and arms into the 47-degree water while meanwhile her arms -- bright red -- are boiling up to meet mine, and her white suckers are attaching to the skin on my hands and forearms. And octopuses can taste with all of their skin but particularly with their suckers. So this animal is not just touching the tasting me all over.”
Athena’s suction cups left an impression.
“A single sucker can lift 30 pounds and they've 1600 of them on a giant Pacific. So it's a hug and a squeeze with a little slime mixed in,” Montgomery said. “And I went home with hickies, too. I had to explain that to my husband.”
It turns out that octopuses have distinct personalities. Athena took a liking to Montgomery.
“She let me pet her head and they don't usually do that with a stranger,” she said. “And second she turned white beneath my touch. And white is the color of a relaxed octopus.”
That ability to turn color – whether when relaxed or figuring out a problem of some sort – is just one of the octopus’s talents.
“You'd have to go to outer space to find someone more unlike a human, you know,” Montgomery said. “We go head-body-limbs and they go body-head-limbs. They have no bones. They have a beak like a parrot. They have venom like a snake. They have ink which they can shoot like an old-fashioned pen. They can change color and shape. They can pour their body through a tiny opening.
“These are superpowers, and yet they think like us in enough ways that it is possible to have a relationship with them.”
Montgomery said that spending time with the giant Pacific octopus and other octopuses changed the way she thinks about thinking.
”Here you have this beautiful sea at your doorstep with these amazing minds in it,” she said. “And that is so glorious for me to realize, and the octopus has showed me that.”