By Pat Garber
It was another daring prison escape.
Lounging in my Ocracoke window seat and listening to NPR one recent morning, I was intrigued.
The escapee, a soccer ball-sized octopus called Inky had squeezed through an opening in his tank at the National Aquarium in Napier, New Zealand.
He found his way across almost eight feet of floor to a 104-foot drainage pipe that led to Hawke’s Bay and then to freedom. His less daring buddy, Blotchy, remained behind. The story made international news and it made me want to learn more about these intriguing marine invertebrates.
Octopi are considered the most intelligent invertebrates on earth and were, according to Dr. Brenner of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, the first intelligent beings on the planet.
Aquarist Alix Harvey of the Marine Biological Association in England describes them as having a complex brain, excellent eyesight, and an ability to learn and form mental maps.
Although seldom noticed around Ocracoke, Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus, resides in healthy numbers in its coastal waters. Most, according to NC Aquariums Education Specialist Meredith Bruhn, are between 12 and 14 inches, although they can reach up to 36 inches.
They migrate offshore in the cold months and back inshore when it turns warm. They reside in lairs, or dens, surrounded by shells which they find and transport to make little fortresses.
Mostly nocturnal, they stay in their lairs except when they come out to feed and reproduce. They live one to two years, and the males die shortly after mating. The females, which spawn only once, produce thousands of eggs and remain with them, cleaning and caring for them meticulously until they hatch. Soon afterwards the females die.
Steve Wilson, a native Ocracoker and captain of his charter boat “Dream Girl,” comes across octopi when diving offshore on wrecks and fishing on shell bottoms in the inlet. He sometimes catches them on hooks, and often finds baby octopi living in scotch bonnets and other shells picked up while diving.
Octopi were described by the late British zoologist Martin Wells as aliens, and new research published in the journal “Nature” suggests they have a genome or DNA pattern that is so unlike that of other invertebrates that it’s being called “alien” by the scientists who studied them.
The octopus genome was discovered to be almost as large as a human’s and to contain a greater number of protein-coding genes.
Other features that may lead one to think of octopi as aliens are their eight legs, each of which contains brain-like neurons that enable them to work autonomously, and an elaborate array of chromatophores, reflecting cells and photophore which allow them to change color and appearance.
They are skilled disguise artists, capable of mimicking swaying seaweeds, venomous lionfish or sea snakes, or simply vanishing into the background in order to elude predators. They also use a black ink which they spray into the water to create a kind of smoke screen, or which may be used as a decoy. This “blank-ink-jet-maneuver” allows the octopus to change color and escape while the predator attacks the floating ink blotch.
Harvey recalled one octopus at a British aquarium that escaped nightly from his tank, slithered across the floor to a nearby tank to snack on fish for dinner, and then went home.
Sy Montgomery, author of the National Book Award finalist “The Soul of an Octopus,” says that octopi have distinct personalities, recognize individual humans, are curious and love to play with toys and with people. They can open a series of different locks to get to a treat.
One can wonder what the octopi that end of in Steve Wilson’s fishing boat here at Ocracoke might be thinking.
“They just want to get off the boat,” he said, “and they turn all kinds of colors, like they’re angry, as they crawl around looking for a way overboard.”
Once back in the water, they vanish into the deep.