Inside a Mollusk Mind

A naturalist makes some eight-armed friends with help from the New England Aquarium.


The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Published by Atria Books, $16, 272 pages

With a mind and heart wide-open to the fascinating inner and outer lives of animals—in this case, the octopus—New Hampshire naturalist Sy Montgomery immerses herself in the worlds of Athena, Octavia and Karma at the New England Aquarium, observing alongside aquarists and volunteers who become a loving family. Blending science and personal experience with poetic wonder, Montgomery describes how this invertebrate’s sucker-studded arms can stretch out 10 feet yet also squish down enough to allow it to sneak out of a small tank opening. One octopus even hid in a teapot. They can change color with psychedelic variety to fend off or threaten predators, or turn blandly white to hide; they open bottles, teasingly play with food buckets, squirt ink to express negative attitudes, protect hundreds of eggs and show affection and consciousness that Montgomery imbues with some quality of the spiritual. She investigates their sex lives, too, paying a visit to the Seattle Aquarium’s Octopus Blind Date, an annual event that has the creatures mating in enormous hugging entanglements.

Montgomery and Co. spend hours reaching into the tank, untroubled by the slime as an octopus wraps its arms—like affectionate bracelets—around their human arms. But our author decides to venture even closer. Scuba diving in the deep blue sea is first gruelingly difficult, but finally gratifying. In the South Pacific, she is transfixed by a wild octopus and other marine life, coming close, literally and emotionally, to her underwater soul mates. Describing the lives and antics of octopi and their human caretakers, Montgomery delivers intriguing scientific information, always with storytelling merriment.

From Page 89: He has managed to make this day a good one—a miracle of sorts. And who better to preside over such a miracle than an octopus, wielder of otherworldly powers—an octopus named after Kali, the goddess of creative destruction, the deity embodying the opposites of kindness and cruelty, sorrow and joy?

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