My Octopus Friend: The Doorway to Wonder (Part 2)
In the previous article, experiencing silence and stillness opened the doorway to my encounter with the octopus. When my mind stilled, my awareness heightened opening my senses to observe the subtleties in the environment. I made a simple yet profound discovery, a sleeping octopus hidden in its cave. This article explores how I began to open the door to the octopus's world, a bit like an Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.by Mary Oliver
The Joy of Editing Wild Swimmer Stories
The Ocean, my daily doorway to wonder. Swimming every day in the Ocean, here, isolated in my rural corner of Galicia, Spain, ironically opened doorways both within me and then, far beyond. I sought connections with other watery souls to communicate, share and elevate other voices through the Wild Swimmer Stories series. Like the octopus's tentacles that reach out in different directions, exploring, learning, knowing (even independent from the central brain), I found myself reaching out in different directions, too. In one case, one of my tentacles found itself reaching far across the globe to South Africa opening the door to the octopus world and planting the seed for this present set of encounters with the octopus.
In September 2020 South African artist Lyn Northam shared her uplifting, life-long love of the sea in my Wild Swimmer series. Over the course of working on the article together, she recommended the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher as she thought it might resonate. Reading about Lyn's experiences and her desire to build bridges between the human and natural worlds, inspired me to watch the documentary with my family. We deeply loved it. Craig Foster's remarkable experiences forming a powerful bond with a wild octopus planted a seed within me.
A lot of people say an octopus is like an alien. But the strange thing is, as you get closer to them, you realize that we're very similar in a lot of ways.by Craig Foster, My Octopus Teacher
Afterwards, I found myself reminiscing about the octopus cave I had found back in May 2020, during a moment of inner and outer stillness. Could I also connect meaningfully with an octopus? The documentary's protagonist observed and interacted with the octopus free diving in the open water. I would try from the tide pool at low tide. I returned to the laño (octopus den) but It was vacant. For many months I returned to check. Eventually I stopped looking as the harsh winter swims at dawn on my 365-day journey gave way to the longer days of spring. I forgot about the planted seed and the octopus cave until many months later and my 8 June 2021 encounter.
Encounters 2-4: Co-Creating an Evolving, Unique Relationship
After the first encounter on 8 June, I eagerly returned the next day. Was it a fluke or would she be receptive again? With the highly adapted brain in the head and eight arms, each with thousands of neurons and sensors that can act independently from the main brain, octopuses' intelligence is a well-studied fact. Masters of camouflage, multi-tasking, curious and playful, octopuses visually recognize, remember and clearly prefer different people. They solve complex problems as well as adapt and perceive using their incredibly sensitive tentacles that can smell, taste and feel all at the same time. Who can know or understand the limits of octopus consciousness?
...in the cases of octopuses, they love to play...They love solving puzzles. And I like to play too, so we had something in common. We know through experiments that octopuses learn to recognize individual faces as they look up through the water....by Sy Montgomery, from interview with Ezra Klein, NY Times
Day 2: 9 June, 9:15am, Ebbing low tide, Waning Moon – 2%
Intrigued, I went back next morning at low tide. She greeted me right away, eagerly, with multiple arms lashing out of the cave, and rising out of the shallow pool to reach me above surface. I felt delighted and happy. It seemed like such unusual behavior for an octopus as they normally shy away from potential predators. And humans are definitely predators. She reached for my water camera and we played tug-of-war again.
I went and got mussels from a nearby rock and she took first one from my fingers, delicately rolling it under her mantle to her mouth. In the video below (starting around 1:06), you can see how she was more interested in my hand than the second mussel I offered.
Fascinated, I let her explore, play with and pull on my hand with her sensitive arms and suckers – tasting, feeling, and getting to know me. When I stroked her very soft, supple skin on the top of the tentacle she would recoil and clearly preferred touch through her suckers and the undersides of the tentacles. Someone asked me if her touch tickled. No, her touch was probing, insistent, enveloping, firm, curious but not ticklish. She did make me laugh though, many times, as you can observe in the video.
In the back of my mind, I knew I would never attempt to pull on her or try to force her out of her den. A predator would use aggression and force. I intuitively wanted to let her come to me. And, I could tell as she pulled on me strongly, I did notice she wanted me 'inside' the cave. Badly. How could I go 'in'? And I'd have to return the next day and find out.
Looking back at my notes, at first I wrote 'he/she' as I didn't know the octopus's sex but over the following days I began to think of the octopus as a female and I believe, from observing the footage I took of the octopus, that indeed she was female. Males have one arm called a hectocotylus (usually the third right limb) that is different from the rest and instead of suckers all the way down to the tip, they have a specialized end that stores and transfers sperm to the female to reproduce.
Day 3: 10 June, 9:30am, Ebbing low tide, New Moon
I distinctly sensed her waiting for me as I approached in my black boots and put my things down on a nearby rock. Octopus vision is excellent. I knew she could see everything I was doing. When I squatted down in front of the cave she immediately greeted me rapidly flinging out several tentacles to grab my hand and tried desperately to pull me into the cave with her many times over and over. It felt good to be greeted like this.
Again, I had this strong sense she wanted me 'in' the cave or at least as much of me as she could get. I sensed frustration, for both of us. She would occasionally expel from her siphon a larger amount of water towards me, like an impatient sigh and shrug of the shoulders, after I released either my hand or camera from her very strong grip. She never though squirted me in the face as octopuses will do in aquarium settings.
I asked naturalist and author of the bestselling book The Soul of an Octopus. A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Sy Montgomery several questions via email about my encounters. In terms of the strong sense of 'wanting me in,' she speculated "That's because, at least early on, while she was quite bold and curious – otherwise she would have camouflaged and retreated deep in her den – she couldn't be absolutely sure you were safe, and she felt more at home exploring you in the safety of her den than outside." As much of me as she could get.
After the initial eagerness wore off she seemed to realize I wasn't going to be "coming in" and accepted it. She then gripped and released my hand over and over letting the tentacles go up and down my wrist and forearm sensing, feeling, learning. I could also sense her normal wariness, caution and mistrust. I went and got her several mussels and she delicately took them one by one using her first right arm and rolling them up and underneath into her mouth. She began to trust me more. Eventually she seemed to tire of play and retreated back into her den. I got the message and took my leave.
Naming the Octopus
I began to think I should give the octopus a name. I didn't want to give her a human name. I'm very aware that this is a unique, inter-species connection. She is an octopus. I am a human. That doesn't mean we don't have things in common and can't find a common ground to communicate. As a cultural anthropologist, I'm accustomed to challenging my own implicit assumptions that arise from my cultural conditioning. I did not want to fall into the trap of 'anthropomorphizing' her, ie, attributing human emotions to an animal or an object. Countless studies demonstrate, though, that octopuses, like many non-human species, possess emotions, great intelligence, motivations, feelings, preferences, and other behaviors in common with humans that allow for the establishment of bonds of connection and communication. Survival adaptations to feel, to remember, to desire to connect, to be curious all serve many species in their survival.
Well, when you're friends with an octopus, and you know what friendship feels like, you know what it feels like to connect to someone else. You know it feels different than the affection you might feel for, say, an object. And I've felt that with the octopuses that I've known. And that only happens when you touch another soul.by Sy Montgomery, in interview with Ezra Klein (NY Times)
Day 4: 11 June, 9:45am, Ebbing low tide, New Moon
Each day I took my octopus encounter stories home to my kids and partner. As a spear fisherman who has hunted octopuses in the open water, my partner was skeptical about this relationship I was describing. As a hunter, he explained, when an octopus senses a threat it will either go still, camouflaging perfectly with the surroundings, hide deep within its cave or release its black ink creating an effective smokescreen and escape. None of what I described made any sense to him as octopuses, in his experience, are timid and avoid human contact at all costs (especially when being hunted!).
My partner couldn't believe how she immediately came out to me. He expected 'flight' as a natural response to potential threat. There was more water and she was able to come out further. Her coloring changed from mottled white and black inside to perfect shades of gold and purple flecked granite. After the initial eager play and pulling in, she became more relaxed. In her calm state (visible in the video), she lets me gently turn her over, as she's attached to my arm, exposing her mouth at the union of the eight arms.
Or do all parts of me taste the same to an octopus? Maybe my right hand tastes different than my left hand. I don't know. An octopus can use all eight limbs independently almost as if they were separate brains from the main brain in the head. Incredible to imagine the implications of that sensitivity, versatility and capacity to feel, absorb and know the world. Perhaps that's why she wanted me in? She wanted to sense me with all eight limbs at once and with the main brain at the same time for a full, simultaneous picture? Who knows?We played together and I felt immense gratitude for this gift of trust from her. I found myself admiring her incredible beauty; the two horns on her head that rose and fell at her will, her mottled purple and golden skin imitating the granite rocks and flora of the cave floor and walls. Eventually she retreated back inside and didn't want to come out anymore. And that was okay, of course. Respect in a friendship is essential. Flowing with the moment.
'Going In' and Fear of Mof's Beak
As the day wore on, I kept running through my mind the sensation that she wanted to pull me inside further. Why? What could that mean to her? I wanted to go 'in' (ie, give her more of my hand until she stopped pulling) but her powerful beak (the only hard part in an octopus's body) concerned me and the possibility that she might bite me if I gave her too much of my hand.
When I let her pull my hand in she would take my fingers towards her mouth and I could feel the hardness of the beak (or was it the tongue? I don't know) gently rubbing on my skin but never eagerly or aggressively. To break open prey an octopus utilizes its beak and then the drill-like tongue (which injects a toxin) to envenomate and paralyze their prey. I felt cautious and wary; I didn't want to end up like the scattered mussel shells she casually discarded at her front porch. Her bite and toxin wouldn't be deadly but it would hurt and could get infected. And what if she wanted to drill my hand with her tongue? She is wild after all and I didn't want to spoil our budding friendship. But how to get 'in'?
That night I looked up information on the internet about an octopus's beak. I found an article about a Washington (USA) woman getting bitten on the face (twice) because she wanted a good photo for a contest! She picked up a frightened, small octopus on the deck of a boat, put it on her face and before she could say cheese the obvious occurred. I read incredulously wondering, How many things can go wrong in that scenario? The petrified octopus, I assume, did not want to either be on the deck or on the woman's face and defended itself from this terrifying situation it found itself in. It seemed to me a good example of how some people want to "connect with nature" but are so disconnected from nature and understanding how to interrelate cross-species, that they treat wild beings as if they were insensitive objects from a Disney movie; ie, a play-thing without thought, feeling, or instinctual survival needs.How can we connect across species without either anthropomorphizing the relationship or idealizing it?
After these first four incredible encounters, I summarized them on my Instagram account like this below. I started to wonder if I was doing 'octopus whispering'. I certainly felt very privileged and blessed to be connecting with such an extraordinary creature. Little did I know this was just the beginning. In Part 3, I describe the important breakthrough I made when I decided to "go in" with Mof through the Doorway of Wonder:
What a superbly gentle unfolding of this uniquely unusual encounter with MOF. Loved how you went at her speed never rushing the moments!! Loved her pink undercolour and suckers!! You really were blessed to discover this very special octopus - a little taste of her world !! Where we just dont really fit!! No magic Alice potent to shrink yourself!! Perhaps you were safer outside!! Thanks for sharing your rare adventure.