The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Author: Sy Montgomery (wiki link). Publishing year: 2016.
This is a wonderful story about the animals in the Boston’s New England aquarium and their caretakers. Human tragedies are punctuated by the meaning their work gives them when interacting with utterly alien intelligence and personalities. The giant pacific octopus takes a central stage in this story.
The book starts by describing the author’s first encounter with an octopus and the circumstances of that interaction.
We can read in detail the author’s journey into understanding the mind of a creature extremely different from us. Sy Montgomery practices a type of journalism best described as immersive. She submerges herself in the life of the aquarium. Furthermore, she dedicates time and effort to understand the pacific octopus beyond what a small captive environment can provide. She takes diving lessons in order to be able to meet them in their own habitat.
It is difficult to overstate how different octopuses minds are.
Octopuses are very likely color blind. Since they can camouflage by imitating background color, there is now evidence they can see with their tentacles. They can detect color with their skin using light and color receptors. The world of an octopus is a very different world:
”…an octopus is put together completely different with three hearts, a brain that wraps around it’s throat, and converting slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen”.
We can read many stories about how people in the aquarium interact with octopuses. How each animal has its own personality. Furthermore, the octopus treats each person differently.
The book tries to highlight how different the octopus brain works. One octopus manages to steal a bucket full of fish while she was distracting everybody with her tentacles :
“Octavia had made us all laugh when she surreptitiously managed to seize a bucket of fish unseen…”
Life in the Aquarium
The book gives a very detailed account of the human and animal life in the aquarium, with focus on the octopus and those in charge of caring for her. We have a glimpse of the tragedies in people’s lives.The volunteers that work in the aquarium find meaning and hope in their work.
We have very little information about octopuses. Persons watching over them have observed some very surprising behavior. For example they escape their tanks and wander around and even die if they are not found in time.
Octavia is the giant pacific octopus that steals Sy Montgomery’s heart. She had a long life in the aquarium and, in the end, she laid eggs and tended to them like a dedicated mother:
“Swimming with a wild octopus was a dream come true, but the octopus experience I would treasure most deeply had been at the aquarium, with Octavia, at April’s end, near the very end of her life”
At the end of their life the caretakers faced a heartbreaking decision: to let her stay in the big exhibit tank or move her in a smaller barrel. Some think it would kill her to be taken away from her eggs, that she would fight to the death to stay in the big fish tank, guarding her precious eggs. Others were thinking the small, dark barrel would comfort her, at the end of the senile life; it would simplify her life:
“We had a history together. For sharing with us her surprising and regulatory life, we owed Octavia comfort and respect at its end.”
Once again we see how little we understand about these alien creatures.
This book widens our understanding of ourselves and other animals. It shows us how our perceptions are limited and how we can expand them. Furthermore, it breaks barriers that keep us constrained in our misunderstandings.
Buy the book on Amazon.com and support our website.