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January 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Soul of an Octopus

from the January, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A decade ago in a posh San Francisco restaurant, I was tempted to order the grilled Pacific octopus. But I didn't, recalling that an octopus, by many counts, is smarter and more emotional than many wise mammals, dogs included. I love spotting an octopus whipping across a reef, changing shapes and colors faster than I can track. So not wanting to be party to the death of such a remarkable creature, I stopped eating octopus. And having just read Sy Montgomery's new book, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (it was a finalist for last year's National Book Award for Nonfiction), I'm all for taking it off everyone's menu. This animal belongs in a Head Start class, not a sushi restaurant.

Montgomery spends months at Boston's New England Aquarium, where several staffers school her in the complexity and personalities of several individual octopuses. (Yes indeed, they differ in personalities as much as you and I differ.) As they eye her every move, wrapping their arms around her arms so their suckers can taste her to identify her, she learns that they befriend some attendants, but not others, for whom they show their disaffection by shooting water, biting, trying to drag them into their tanks, or just hiding away. If you're a friend, they'll play with toys you put in the water -- one used her water spout to drive a float around the tank many times -- and embrace you softly. She watches the octopuses' endless color and pattern changes, learning that red is excitement and white is relaxation, while rolling patterns confuse their prey, making them easy to strike. And she searches for escapees, who have squeezed through impossible cracks in their tanks to slide into other tanks to hunt dinner.

The Soul of an OctopusTo observe octopuses in the wild, Montgomery scuba dives in Cozumel and Tahiti. While her octopus encounters are fascinating, you will shake your head at her diving problems. In the most touching chapter, Montgomery visits the Seattle Aquarium for Octopus Blind Date Night, an annual event where two octopuses, in full view of onlookers and TV cameras, are put into a single tank. The hope is they will mate, but they may ignore each other, or one may even kill the other and devour it. You'll be captivated by Montgomery's beautiful description of octopus love, and because mating is a prelude to their deaths, the aquarium releases them into Elliott Bay with accompanying divers, who track how each octopus searches for a home and settles in, the female protecting her eggs until they hatch.

I guarantee you'll finish this book in absolute awe of the octopus, perhaps even encouraged to volunteer at your local aquarium to get backstage to meet and greet the real creatures. I also suspect that you'll never eat an octopus again. And if you do, well, shame on you.

To purchase the 262-page hardbound book, go to, and our profits will be donated to organizations working to save the oceans.

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