My Octopus Teacher
Cover image credits: Vlad Tchomalov / Unsplash
Netflix’s oscar-winning documentary film ‘My Octopus Teacher’, described as a poignant tale of love between a man and an octopus is an ode to the magnificence of ‘otherness’. Indeed, by conventional standards, an octopus is an unlikely candidate as a cute, cuddly mascot for wildlife campaigns. The fear of the deep sea and its inhabitants lies deep in the human psyche, with many literary classics depicting the octopus as some ancient monster, hungrily awaiting its prey. With almost 500 million years of evolutionary separation, there is little doubt that this invertebrate mollusk is an embodiment of the ‘Other’. Invertebrates make up almost 98 percent of the known species in the ocean, which in turn cover 71 percent of the Earth. So, in a sense, an octopus holds a portal into another dimension we know very little about.
Philosopher Thomas Nagel (1974) famously raised the question ‘What is it like to be a bat?‘ in order to argue that it is impossible to inhabit the subjective experience of being another creature. With a parrot-like beak, three hearts, blue blood, and two-thirds of the cognitive machinery in its arms, an octopus takes this question to another level. Yet, as the documentary portrays, encounters with these magnificent and mysterious creatures invite us to explore the enchanting world of underwater relationships. Commenting on how she developed close connections with octopuses in the New England Aquarium, Sy Montgomery (2016) writes, “While stroking an octopus, it is easy to fall into reverie. To share such a moment of deep tranquility with another being, especially one as different from us as the octopus, is a humbling privilege… an uplink to universal consciousness.”
Spot the octopus?
Scientists are only beginning to understand the capacities and traits of an octopus. They are excellent visual predators and use a variety of methods to hunt their diverse prey. Vulnerable as they are without any shell from larger predators such as sharks, octopuses also excel at evading them through camouflage, and creative use of materials to build an armor or distract the predators. Theories suggest that its vulnerability as a pound of tasty protein for any larger predator could be a possible reason for its extreme intelligence (Amodio et al, 2019). Apart from outwitting its opponents, an octopus also feeds on a host of diverse species, each requiring different ways of hunting. In now-classic studies, it is evident that octopuses can learn to solve fairly complex puzzles of unlocking boxes to get a tasty morsel (Richter, Hochner, & Kuba, 2016). In fact, in a few studies, they went ahead to again lock the boxes after they were done! They are also incredibly strong. Just one of a giant Pacific octopus male’s three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 13 kilograms, and it has 1600 of them! An octopus bite can inject a neurotoxic venom as well as saliva that has the ability to dissolve flesh. It can secrete a dark-coloured ‘ink’ to evade predators and escape. They are incredibly gifted at disappearing if they want to. Some divers describe them as a blob of liquid for their knack of squeezing through really tiny spaces. Depending on its mood and needs, an octopus is the master of disguise with its ability to change its colour on the fly. It doesn’t stop there. They can also modify their skin texture to mimic rocks, sand, coral heads, or other landscape elements by altering the papillae on their skin. Some species even impersonate other sea animals such as flatfish, sea snakes, and lionfish. If you think you are versatile, think again. We feel positively primitive while having to change clothes!
This is a species one can almost imagine staring back at us with the question, “you think you are the only intelligent ones out there?”. In fact, octopuses stretch our imagination of the conception of ‘I’ as a singular entity. The octopus has a central brain and also an independent, smaller nervous system in each arm, allowing it to have both centralized and distributed command (Levy, Flash, & Hochner, 2015). A severed arm can even catch food and will try to pass it on towards a mouth which isn’t there. We can never really know what it is to be an octopus, but we can give it the right to flourish in its habitat. The interesting aspect is that octopuses thrive in a variety of marine habitats. They can inhabit shallow tide pools or coral reefs, some prefer the vast expanse of the pelagic waters or seagrass beds, and a few even can be seen in the deepest of waters. Octopuses are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and some species are now threatened due to unsustainable commercial fishing and shrinking habitats. In the Indian subcontinent, the inhabitants of the Lakshadweep islands have been practicing traditional fishery of octopuses (or appal) called appal koothal mainly for the subsistence of local communities (Nair & Apte, 2013). The traditional methods used for hunting emphasize on leaving the coral habitats intact, as well as abstaining from hunting breeding pairs or female ones during certain times of the year. Such practices that weave social, cultural, and environmental aspects into a way of life are in fact disappearing due to pressures from global markets and the industrial scale of fishing.
In a bid to conserve a few habitats, India has a few marine national parks. Amongst them, are the Pirotan and Narara islands of Gujarat which form part of India’s first-ever marine national park. The guides take you for a nature trail in ankle-deep water where you can catch sight of pufferfishes, corals, jellyfishes, a variety of mollusks, and if you are lucky, an octopus! Our first encounter can only be described as an excellent demonstration of transfiguration, right out of a Harry Potter book. As we were wading through the waters, the guide announced ‘Octopus’ while pointing in the direction of sand and a few stones. Looking at our puzzled faces, the guide bent down and scooped a handful of what seemed like sand, until it started writhing and turned into muddy coloured octopus! He then gently placed it on a rock that was underwater. No sooner than he did that, the octopus turned to a deep shade of maroon brown, as if melting into the rock itself. We didn’t dare to blink an eye, fearing that it would disappear the next moment. Sure enough, it immediately swam into the shallow waters and became transparent within a second. That was all the magic we could wish for.
Seconds before the octopus vanished
Such more-than-human encounters are precious. The mere chance to appreciate beauty and intelligence beyond our wildest imaginations is also an invitation to reflect on the richness of life. As poignantly put by Rachel Carson, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” Let an octopus show the way.
Image credits (for all images, unless specified): Deborah Dutta