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'The Soul of an Octopus': Getting to know friendly mollusks

"The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness" by Sy Montgomery (Atria, May 2015) Photo Credit: Atria

THE SOUL OF AN OCTOPUS: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness, by Sy Montgomery. Atria, 261 pp., $26.

A few years ago, New Hampshire naturalist Sy Montgomery sought an encounter with an octopus. "I wanted to explore a different kind of consciousness, if such a thing exists," she writes in her new book. "What is it like to be an octopus?" After just a few moments with Athena, a 2 1/2-year-old cephalopod that lived in the New England Aquarium's Cold Marine tank, Montgomery became completely besotted. Octopuses taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery's outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. "Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before," Montgomery marvels.

Montgomery became a fixture at the New England Aquarium and got to know a roster of octopuses, including outgoing Octavia, devoted to the thousands of (unfertilized) eggs she laid that would never hatch; moody Kali, whose determination to escape new quarters ended her life; and joyful Karma, who arrived at the Boston FedEx terminal in a plastic bag, shipped from British Columbia.

Researchers and keepers share tales of cantankerousness and what can only be described as friendliness. Octopuses are famous for dousing people with expertly aimed, piercing jets of cold water. They change color to broadcast their moods (white means "touching might be OK"; red means "don't even"). They certainly experience boredom and curiosity, as evidenced by their tireless efforts to outwit humans and escape their tanks. It's no wonder Montgomery became convinced that these animals -- actually members of the mollusk family -- are fully sentient creatures.

Montgomery occasionally veers a bit too far into the mystical depths -- stroking an octopus offers "a gentle miracle, an uplink to universal consciousness" but her compassion and respect for the species makes for a buoying read.


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