This giant red octopus can be seen at the California Academy of Sciences.

A week ago on Tuesday morning, a co-worker and I were able to go behind the scenes and visit with the Giant Red Octopus and his trainer. To get to his tank, we had to climb a ladder onto a deck surrounding one wall of the tank. There was a detachable wall blocking off the tank from the desk that was covered in astro-turf. Nancy, who works with the octopus, explained that an octopus can’t find suction on astro-turf and therefore cannot get the footing to climb out of the tank. There was also a lip of the tank out of public view. The “octopus garden” was displayed there as dozens of crab shells picked clean.

Nancy was awaiting a crab shipment later that day. She uses live crab as enrichment for the octopus. She also has puzzles made out of PVC piping she hides fish in for the octopus to solve. The octopus gets many visits, much like the one me and my co-worker were on, for enrichment as well.

Nancy took down the detachable wall and we came face to face with the octopus we had only every seen through glass. There were a couple of things I learned that day:

A giant red octopus can drench you in 10 seconds flat if he wants to. The siphon on an octopus is similar to gills on a fish and jettisons water in and out. When he was slightly above the water line, the siphon dumped about two gallons of water over the side and I was directly in the path. It took all day to dry out my jeans.

His skin felt totally different than I expected. I expected something like the scales on a snake. However, his skin was soft, super malleable and slimy. It felt totally weird touching him and my hands were super dry after playing with him for a half hour. I knew that an octopus was boneless before touching him, but it was altogether different to feel him.

Those tentacles have suction power! His trainer showed us how to lay our hands over his suckers and let him grab hold. He had one of his tentacles around my hand and I couldn’t get him to let go. His trainer squeezed his tentacle further up and it relieved the suction enough that I could pop his suckers off my hand. They are strong too! At one point, he had suction across my arm and we were playing tug of war.

The giant red octopus knows and is bonded to his trainer. It was amazing watching them interact. I knew the octopus was intelligent before I got a close encounter with him but it was definitely reinforced after I saw how he interacted with us.

Part of why I love working at the Academy is moments like these. It reminds me why I am doing what I am doing for a living and that a special moment with an animal when I was small was what got me where I am today.

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Holding Hands with an Octopus 3 March,2010Cat



Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division.
Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.

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