Eight-Armed Wonders of the Sea

I had never paid much attention to octopuses before, but one balmy morning not too long ago, I was leafing through The New York Times and came across this headline: “Inky the Octopus Escapes From a New Zealand Aquarium” Curious that this should be worldwide news, I skimmed the article and discovered that octopuses are “fantastic escape artists”—being able to squeeze through a hole as small as a quarter—and have “a complex brain” that can “form mental maps.” Interesting.

That noon, in need of some light reading, I strolled around the corner from our offices to our local independent bookstore, McNally Jackson, and immediately found on the front table where recent non-fiction is displayed a book with the title The Soul of an Octopus. More on octopuses, and a National Book Award Finalist, no less!

So I picked it up and, sure enough, the tales of octopus life are rather amazing. Octopuses not only recognize people, but they have favorites—if they like you they will gently wrap your arm in one of their eight tentacles, “tasting” you with their many, many suckers (1,600 in all). If they don’t like you, they may squirt you with cold, salty brine, shot with accuracy from a funnel on their head. They have three hearts, and their brain appears to be spread out in part onto their independently moving tentacles. They turn bright red when they are excited, and fade to white when content. The female lays her eggs just once toward the end of her life—65,000 to 100,000 in all—which she strings together and suspends from the roof of her den. Then she guards and tends to them assiduously for four to eight months, never leaving, even for food. Once the baby octopuses are all hatched and launched onto the currents of the seas, she dies.

The next night while having dinner with my daughter, who was just back from New Zealand where she had been painting Sea Walls about the endangered species of the Pacific Ocean for the non-profit PangeaSeed, I asked if she had heard about Inky’s escape. Indeed she had. It had taken place the week after she left. The aquarium was in Napier, the very town to which she and 40 other artists from around the world had been invited to paint their sea-themed murals. And one of the murals was on the aquarium itself. Then her friend added in that she had seen videos of octopuses escaping from unlikely places on YouTube.

Is everyone in the world clued into octopuses these days? Where have I been all this time? But then again, how little we all know about the ocean and what lives there. It covers 72% of the Earth’s surface, but 80% of it is unexplored. We know of 230,000 marine species, but the actual number could be as much as ten times higher. As investors, Domini has advocated for sustainable fishing to help preserve important marine ecosystems. I find myself wondering—what else is there we need to know about the seven seas?

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