How to Befriend Your Octopus

I re-subscribed to Netflix so I could be enchanted by My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about a South African filmmaker’s bond with a wild octopus. She is the opposite of a mammal; cool-blooded, boneless.

And yet.

She has intelligence – or at least, an intelligence that our own intelligence is primed to recognise.

Curiosity. Playfulness.

Trust.

The moment when she decides to reach out and touch the diver’s hand made me do two things: one, cry. Two, think of the bonding scene in How To Train Your Dragon (see visual juxtaposition below).

(You know what would make this comparison even more powerful? Listening to the ‘Forbidden Friendship’ track from the How To Train Your Dragon score. Go do it. Right now.)

I wonder if other people and other octopuses could forge the same bond. I hope so. We know the capacity is there, on both sides.

I’ve never been in a position to swim in a quiet and octopus-inhabited spot every day of the year. But I count myself lucky for the meetings I’ve had.

First time. I’m ten or eleven years old. Snorkelling near a beach in Majorca. I turn towards a slanting slab of rock and–

A bright orange burning eye.

A concoction of terror and wonder comes ripping through my veins.

Octopus. Not a monster.

I hang in the water, staring. Surrounding the single staring eye is the ragged outline of a star with too many points (eight, in fact). The same variegated colour as the algae-coated rock.

The memory fails me here; I hold images in my mind of the octopus lifting off, flushing from brown to orange, then flashing into white. I scared it. I pursued it. I feel guilty now, but I couldn’t have done anything else as that child but try to eke as much out of the moment as I could.

Needless to say, the octopus did not reciprocate.

I’ve never had such a surplus of time with one since, though I have seen plenty. I used to go to Majorca every summer. We seemed to see more octopus as the years went by, but that was probably just our eyes tuning to their shapes. We sometimes got lucky; we’d find one billowing its way across an open plain of sand to the next forest of weed.

My brother, John, worked out early on that fish are good at giving them away. If you’re ever in a place where octopus are known to be, keep an eye out for rocks where fish, usually an assortment of species, are gathering curiously.

If the octopus is under a rock, you’re unlikely to lock eyes. No matter. We’d find a stick and carefully poke; the hidden octopus would usually grab on. There is no feeling like that of a cephalopod’s muscle fighting against your own.

I don’t know when I’ll next meet one again. I hope I do. My younger self had no idea of the secrets the brain behind that orange eye concealed. Nor of the miniature brain tucked away in every tentacle. As far as scientists can tell, the octopus has a fragmented consciousness.

I’ll never know what it is to be an octopus, and I almost certainly won’t befriend one like Craig Foster of My Octopus Teacher. What I can do, have done, is sink away into other people’s words – science, memoir, even fiction. I befriend paper octopuses.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery: An account of getting to know captive octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston. Each creature an individual. One octopus jetted water at people she didn’t like. Another was proficient at escaping her tank (they are notorious Houdinis – in another aquarium, fish kept disappearing from a tank until the staff realised their octopus was leaving its tank at night, and moving over dry land to reach other tanks and snack on the inhabitants, then going back home). Montgomery sometimes becomes too spiritual for my liking, but the book is gently wonderful.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith: A mix of science and philosophy, this book delves into the minds of octopus, cuttlefish and squid. A rather more cerebral read (unironically). Endlessly fascinating.

Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky: Science fiction in its most perfect form. This is a sequel to Children of Time but it isn’t necessary to read that one (though it is even better). Children of Ruin is about more than octopuses, but the octopuses are key players – brought from Earth to a distant terraformed planet, infected with an engineered virus that “uplifts” them to greater and greater heights of intelligence. They build spaceships filled with water. (Also, Tchaikovsky thanks Peter Godfrey-Smith in his acknowledgements for the inspiration afforded him by Other Minds.)

The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen: More science fiction. This time on Earth. There is actually only one scene with an octopus, but it’s probably the funniest scene I’ve ever read in a sci-fi novel – the titular character’s consciousness is “beamed” into an octopus body and, while trying to perform reconnaissance underwater, keeps having to contend with her rebellious, other-ideas tentacles (“Drop the crab. Drop the crab, drop the crab, drop the fucking crab.”)

A book is only a book. Octopuses are themselves. There is beauty in trying to bridge the gap between our understanding of the world, and theirs.

One more thing to ponder: their lives are so short. Only two years, for many species. With their capacity for learning, what could their brains do, if each individual had more time? What if evolution gives it to them?

What could they become?

One thought on “How to Befriend Your Octopus

  1. Yay 😁 so glad you watched it! I cried a lot! I didn’t realise you’d seen so many in the wild. I glimpsed a camouflaged one once when scuba diving in Fuerteventura but didn’t see an eye sadly.

    Like

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