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THE YEAR OF THE OCTOPUS

THE YEAR OF THE OCTOPUS

 

As a child I had an aversion to snakes – their beady eyes, their scaley bodies and their furtive, slithery nature. I knew that they could spit venom, they could lash out and bite or they could strangle their victims to death, python wise, by wrapping their muscular, sinewy bodies around a person. Even behind the thick glass walls in Dublin Zoo, I was wary of them.

 

In the aquatic world I feared the octopus with its bald head and 8 arms that could move in all directions at the same time. How could a person defend oneself against an all-out attack by one of these gelatinous creatures covered in adhesive suckers? No wonder they often appeared as aliens in horror or science fiction films. However, unlike jelly fish, we did not appear to have them in Ireland so that was one worry less for my sensitive soul.

 

On the Continent it’s a different matter. Not only are octopuses common in southern Europe but, horror of horrors, people eat them. Recently, while on holidays in the beautiful port city of Sete, on the French Mediterranean coast, I discovered that the local delicacy is teille or octopus pie. Not only that but in one of their public Squares there is large fountain containing an impressive bronze statue of an octopus. Clearly the French react differently to this strange creature. Nevertheless, I quickly learned that the French call the octopus le poulpe or la piuvre and scrutinized every menu to ensure I did not accidentally find one on my plate. I was determined not be suckered.

 

We were staying in an apartment. I seldom watch TV while on holidays, partly because of the fare on offer. English language programmes are scarce and often confined to repetitive loops of the BBC World Service or CNN news. However, this year we had an unexpected treat when I turned on the TV – Netflix.

 

Having tired myself during the day walking and sight-seeing I thought it would be nice to relax with a programme, even one with French subtitles. And that is how I came across a fascinating film called “My Octopus Teacher”.

 

It was made by a South African film maker called Craig Foster who also provided the commentary. He explained that having exhausted himself through overwork he decided to take a break. He began to swim in a cold, underwater kelp forest near his seaside home in South Africa. At first, he just swam around observing the aquatic life. Puzzled that he was not using an aqualung, I later discovered that he could hold his breath for 6 minutes and this gave him great freedom to dawdle under water.

 

One day he noticed a collection of shells and stones as if they were attached to a rock. Then suddenly they exploded in all directions revealing an octopus that had been hiding behind them. Intrigued by this strange sight, he returned day after day to observe the octopus by following her around. Over the course of a year, he slowly gained the trust of this female octopus so much that the creature would stroke his arm or face with one of its tentacles and even sit on his outstretched hand. All this was to be seen in glorious colour because the light levels were very good due to the shallowness of the water.

 

Watching this prize winning 2020 film, I learned much about the life of this solitary creature who has a life span of one to three years. Her main predator in the film is the pyjama shark and I watched how she evaded danger by hiding under rocks or camouflaging herself as she did earlier with the shells. She could transform her skin into long lumpy ridges, mimicking corals, rock, or algae. She could also wrap sea weed around herself and become invisible. However, on one occasion, while she was trying to hide under a rock, a shark attacked her and bit off one of her arms. Craig thought the creature would die but she didn’t. Instead, over the weeks that followed, she grew a new arm to replace the lost tentacle.

 

The film maker was careful not to humanize the octopus by giving her a name or to interfere in the natural cycle even when the octopus was in danger.

 

The octopus has a bulbous head and “foot” in an elongated body. The head includes 2 eyes, a mouth and one of 3 brains. The foot has four sets of arms that surround the mouth and are attached to each other. The 2 rear arms are generally used to walk on the sea floor while the other six are used to forage for food. About two thirds of an octopus’s neurons are located in its arms. This means the arms can taste, touch and even act on their own accord, without input from the brain.

 

Of course, not only is the octopus a potential victim, she is also a predator. In the film we see her hunt and outwit crustations like crabs and lobsters in a cat and mouse game. The mouth of the octopus, located under the arms, had a sharp hard beak that allows the octopus to bore into the shells of crustations and kill them by injecting venom.

 

Most of the octopus’ body is made up of a soft tissue allowing it to lengthen, contract and contort itself. Consequently, it can squeeze through tiny gaps as small as an inch in diameter. Octopuses generally crawl along the sea floor or swim. However, they are also capable of jet propulsion when in danger. With head forward and arms trailing, they streak through the water emitting water vapour or black ink if the need arises.

 

Independently I discovered that octopuses vary greatly in size. They can be as tiny as 2 inches long. On the other hand, the giant Pacific octopus can grow to 18 feet in length and have an arm span of almost 90 feet. The octopus in the film was 4 or 5 feet long.

 

The life span of the octopus, a consequence of a reproductive strategy known as semelparity, is amazing. The male uses a specially adapted arm to impregnate the female. After this he becomes senescent (grows old very quickly) and dies. The female deposits the fertilized eggs in a den and cares for them for months until they hatch, after which she also dies, from starvation. Consequently, the young octopus starts life as an orphan and must quickly learn how to survive in hostile territory. It is fortunate that the female, in this sacrificial maternal role, produces tens of thousands of eggs because very few of them survive the first few days.

 

As to be expected the film does not end happily for the octopus. Weak and defenseless after hatching the eggs, she is carried away in the mouth of a shark.

 

That said, I still will not be eating octopus, even in a pie with tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, brisee pastry and dry white wine. “No thanks, waiter! I’ll settle for poisson Saint-pierre or morue and pommes frites” instead”.

 

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