Octopus Encounter at the Oregon Coast Aquarium
by Cindy Hanson
standing by the octopus tank in a back room of the Oregon Coast
Aquarium trying to be a brave sport. Atlantis, a 40- pound octopus,
has snaked one arm from the tank and now is wrapping it along the
length of my forearm, suction cups - taste receptors, technically
-- savoring the flavor of my skin. I keep that one arm stretched
a good distance from my body -- just in case she decides I am particularly
tasty -- but then look down and find another Atlantis' eight arms
slyly writhing toward another body part. I give a startled yelp
and jump - much to the amusement of the others in my "Octopus
One of several interactive programs at the aquarium, "Octopus
Encounter" is a one-hour tour offering participants the opportunity
to experience the Giant Pacific Octopus as up-close and personal
as it gets without donning dive gear.
We began with a video. Six of us - the maximum allowed on any one
encounter - gather around the meeting-room table and tune into "Incredible
Suckers," a video that leaves no doubt in my mind this is one
2820 SE Ferry Slip Rd
Newport, Oregon 97365
by Cindy Hanson
averaging 70 to 100 pounds and growing as large as 16 feet (the
largest on record was 60 feet long and weighed 600 pounds), octopuses
have eight arms - which they can regrow should they lose one - and
three hearts. They can change the color of their skin to blend with
their environment, exist in water or out (15 minutes to as long
as an hour depending on the environment) and can squeeze through
anything large enough to accommodate their parrotlike beak, one
of only two hard parts on their body - the other is the "pen"
through which they shoot ink - and the means by which they eat.
We watch as the octopus on screen, roughly 40 pounds, squishes through
a pipe 2 inches in diameter, pops out the other end, then flattens
itself, crawls from the water onto the land, back into the water,
then oozes its way through a underwater garden and snags a crab.
With these Houdini-like abilities and incredible strength combined
with intelligence on par with the average house cat, an octopus
is not inclined to passively stay where it's put. Which is why,
when we climb the stairs to the top of the octopus cave for a view
down below, we find the surrounding area covered with artificial
turf - a distinctly unpleasant surface for the dual rows of highly
sensitive suckers lining each of the octopus' arms.
caretakers count on the prickly green stuff to keep otherwise errant
octopuses at home, and so far the tactic has worked at Newport.
Other aquariums haven't been so lucky.
An aquarium volunteer in our encounter group recalls an octopus
at another aquarium that nightly crawled out of its tank, feasted
on small sea life in nearby tanks, then slinked back to its home
by morning. Aquarium officials feared employees were sneaking the
missing critters out for their home tanks. It was only when they
installed cameras that the real culprit was caught.
After about 20 minutes of learning about octopuses, the real encounter
Our guide leads us through a door to an area generally reserved
for staff. Aquarist Anita Baker waits by a tank, one hand engaged
in a dance of sorts with Atlantis' curious arm.
Our guide, Lissy Moore, instructs us to remove any loose jewelry,
lest Atlantis decide to make it her own, and come say hello. A grandfather
and grandson immediately stake a claim at the front of the tank
and reach for an arm. I'm a bit more cautious. After all, should
Atlantis decide she likes any one of us, she would have no problem
pulling us right into the tank. And while, yes, I know that's not
going to happen, just the thought is enough to make me squirm.
by Cindy Hanson
senses my hesitancy and encourages me to give Atlantis a hand. I
ease my forearm her way and immediately the octopus entwines an
arm around mine, suckers gripping like so many hungry mouths. That's
about the time I notice arm No. 2 getting a bit curious and decide
to give Atlantis a bit of space.
We hear it before we see it, a whooshing sort of sound, the one
that comes with an onslaught of water, and suddenly grandfather
and son stand dripping wet - and laughing. Octopuses take in water
through their gills and expel it through a siphon, and Atlantis
has just demonstrated her highly accurate aim. It seems such a drenching
is something of an honor. "She's playing," Baker says.
A sign, perhaps, that Atlantis likes us.
Next it's feeding time. I lay a whole capelin (a small fish) on
my arm, then watch as Atlantis curls it in the end of a tentacle,
then pushes it toward her beak, located somewhere beneath the huge
mantle that passes as body and head. In the wild, octopuses dine
on crab, shrimp, scallops, abalone, snails, fish and smaller octopuses
and often will tuck away one of their victims to dine on at a later
When we first encounter Atlantis, she's a pale shade of pinkish
white, a color signaling she is relaxed. As we play with her, her
shade deepens to spotty coral pink, an indication we have her interest.
It deepens further when Baker gives her a crab-bait holder with
a capelin inside.
Moore explains that daily play with the creatures is crucial to
their well-being. Toys, such as hamster balls they must open to
find the treat inside, keep them engaged, their curiosity alive.
"They tend to be social creatures, not within their species,
but they are playful with people," Moore says. "These
animals would normally be out hunting, but when they are in an aquarium,
we give them their food so they need some sort of enrichment. We
play with them every day so they have interaction and don't get
The crab-bait holder is a new challenge for the octopus, and soon
she has no interest in playing with us but turns all arms and attention
to the holder. Her color turns a deep purple brown, and Baker closes
the tank to leave her to her task.
Atlantis may quickly dismiss us humans, but we'll not soon forget
our octopus encounter.
by Lori Tobias, a free-lance writer in Newport, OR.