Book review: The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery, naturalist

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm


A few years ago, New Hampshire naturalist Sy Montgomery - who has written about birds, dolphins and tigers - sought an encounter with an octopus. "I wanted to touch an alternate reality," she writes in her latest book. "I wanted to explore a different kind of consciousness, if such a thing exists. What is it like to be an octopus?"

After just a few moments with Athena, a two-and-a-half-year-old cephalopod that lived in the New England Aquarium's Cold Marine tank, Montgomery became besotted with her. Octopuses taste with their suckers, and as Athena 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," she writes.

Montgomery became a fixture at the aquarium and got to know a roster of octopuses, including Octavia, who awed visitors and staff with her devotion to the thousands of (unfertilised) eggs she laid that would never hatch; Kali, whose determination to escape new quarters ended her life; and Karma, who arrived in a plastic bag, shipped from British Columbia in Canada. She delighted in each stage of their lives and mourned their deaths as she might a human friend's.

The octopus is indeed a wondrous creature: its brain has 300 million neurons, while a rat's, no slouch of a learner, has 200 million. Octopuses' ability to change colour and camouflage themselves is unmatched; they've been clocked changing from one "look" to another in less than a second.

Appropriately, the well-regarded staff of the Seattle Aquarium, which has taught the world much about the giant Pacific octopus, figure prominently in the book. Keepers and researchers share tales of cantankerousness in some animals, as well as what can only be described as friendliness. Octopuses are famous for dousing people with piercing jets of cold water. They experience boredom and curiosity, as evidenced by their tireless, often successful efforts to outwit humans and escape from their tanks. (One octopus even dismantled the plumbing in its tank.)

Montgomery occasionally veers a bit too far into the mystical depths - writing that 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.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Simon & Schuster)

Tribune News Service