By Daniel de la Calle
During my first year of college I studied Law. I did not know what to do and my father was convinced it suited me, so between nothing and Law, Law it was. For two semesters the only lectures that caught my attention were about Roman Law. Not only was the professor brilliant, he also happened to be a dive master, eager to talk about the seas given the slightest chance. He had become famous throughout campus for delivering at the end of each year a final lecture on octopuses. Pathetic as it might sound, this became something I looked forward to for months, desperate to feel excited and interested inside that sordid building.
All days come, and so did that day when my Mussolini-looking Roman Law professor walked into a room full of students and spectators standing on both sides and back; the four hundred seat room seemed magically small. What followed was a brilliant and uninterrupted hour-long monologue, impossible for me to reproduce with detail now, twenty years later, with my flaky memory as aid. But this is true: his speech changed the way I looked at octopuses forever. I thought I knew them well, I had been a spear fisherman since the age of 12 and octopus is a priced capture along the Mediterranean, when in reality I did not have the faintest notion of what the mighty octopus accomplishes in its short life. I was aware that he changed color, that the skin could also alter its texture to imitate that of rocks or seaweed, that he squirted ink, pretended to be a different sea animal, jet propelled itself to escape or hid underneath stones, all to avoid being eaten; I had seen all that many times. Sadly for the octopus though, he is considered as delicious underwater as on land, every predator wants to eat it. Even more unfortunately for the poor cephalopod, he is in the habit of eating lunch by his front door, so he is pretty easy to spot by humans once you discover a suspicious pile of empty shells on the seabed. My professor referred to his incredible abilities, his intelligence and bewildering anatomy. Eight legs, three hearts, one head, no bones, he is an all-round wonder, capable of squeezing inside a hole as big as the diameter of one of its tentacles, so a 15 pound octopus needs little more than an inch hole to get through. Each one of those tentacles feels, tastes and even “thinks”, for part of its neurons are located there. And believe me, it does think in its own way, and solve problems, and learn; it the smartest invertebrate by far. If you put a shrimp inside a bottle and place that in front of him, the octopus will envelop the glass container, touching it all around. It will take a while, but eventually he will open the cap, put a tentacle in and eat the shrimp. What is more, the second time you try the trick (months later if you so wish) he will go straight to the bottle, open the cap and have his lunch as swiftly as you open your refrigerator door back home. The professor told us he always packed sardines for his dives and whenever he found an octopus he would attempt to win its confidence and feed it by hand. After a couple immersions the octopus would recognize him, his wetsuit, and would come out to greet him right away, looking for those fat sardines.
If you play with them, this I have tested myself, they will be very curious, touching you everywhere, grabbing your hand and letting it go, grabbing again, and they will show anger, frustration or fear by siphoning water, prickling the skin up, changing color rapidly. They love treats, free meals and are quite curious, just like us.
Here are three pictures of an octopus at the Paris Aquarium last month. He seemed terribly upset, going from one side to the other, turning reddish, brown, dark, light, waving its tentacles like an angry Italian primadonna. I will never know the whole story, because we left, but I did notice a closed jar with a crab inside at the bottom of the tank.
All this is what we talk about when we talk about Ocean Acidification.