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Review: ‘The Soul of an Octopus’ by Sy Montgomery

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Sy Montgomery. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $26.
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Sy Montgomery. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $26.

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 2 1/2-year-old cephalopod that lived in the New England Aquarium’s Cold Marine tank, Montgomery became completely besotted with her. Octopuses taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully 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,” Montgomery marvels.

Montgomery became a fixture at the New England Aquarium, becoming close with the volunteers and staff. She got to know a roster of octopuses, including the outgoing Octavia, who awed visitors and staff with her devotion to the thousands of (unfertilized) eggs she laid that would never hatch; moody Kali, whose determination to escape new quarters ended her life; and the joyful Karma, who arrived at the Boston FedEx terminal in a plastic bag, shipped from British Columbia. Montgomery 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, the reader finds: An octopus’ brain has 300 million neurons, while a rat’s, no slouch of a learner, has 200 million. The giant Pacific octopuses only live three to five years, which is long by octopus standards. Octopuses’ ability to change color and camouflage themselves is unmatched; they’ve been clocked changing from one “look” to another in less than a second.

The well-regarded staff of the Seattle Aquarium, which has taught the world much about the giant Pacific octopus, figures prominently in the book. The staff’s discoveries are intriguing and laugh-out-loud funny. Not surprisingly, Montgomery became convinced that these animals — actually members of the mollusk family — are fully sentient creatures, with minds of their own and awareness of their place in the world.

Researchers and keepers share tales of cantankerousness in some animals, as well as what can only be described as friendliness. Octopuses are famous for dousing people with expertly aimed, piercing jets of cold water They change color to broadcast their moods (white means “touching might be OK.” Red means “don’t even”). They experience boredom and curiosity, as evidenced by their tireless, often successful efforts to outwit humans and escape their tanks. Keepers have reported to work to find an octopus has eaten other animals, or in one memorable episode, their workplace flooded by a frustrated resident that 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” and that one encounter caused her to be “overwhelmed with the desire to kiss” the animal’s suckers — but her compassion and respect for a familiar species makes for a buoying read.

Melissa Davis reviewed this book for The Seattle Times.

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