The Octopus from Outer Space
Illustration by Kyler Martz
Dominic Sivitilli is 45 feet below the surface off the west coast of San Juan Island in 2017 when his scuba diving partner waves him over. It’s been a long day, and the University of Washington grad student has abandoned hope in his search for invertebrate specimens to bring back to nearby Friday Harbor Laboratories, where he’s studying for the summer. A fellow diver signaling him, though, means something of interest must lurk below. A sea urchin, perhaps. Maybe a sun starfish. Dominic swims over and what he sees looks like a big, breathing piece of green…kelp. With eyes. A giant Pacific octopus sits camouflaged on the seafloor, its skin color changed to blend with the surroundings. Dominic coaxes the creature into a mesh bag, then into a cooler, and transports it back to Friday Harbor.
Once released into a lab tank, the animal goes electric with activity, like someone’s flipped a switch. About five feet long from arm tip to arm tip, the female octopus has reverted to her default color, a ruddy auburn, and she’s swimming with abandon. Dominic, a behavioral neuroscience PhD candidate, will come to identify this burst as a manifestation of her insatiable curiosity. Every time someone walks into the lab, the octopus swims in that direction, checking the person out.
As night falls after a day of diving, transporting the octopus, and securing the tank (octopuses are notorious escape artists), Dominic’s exhausted. Tidying up the darkened lab for the evening, he realizes he’s being watched. Despite the evolutionary distance—the last common ancestor of humans and octopuses lived half a billion years ago—he senses a strange kinship, that this specimen is as curious about him as he is of her.
He names her Gaia, the personification of earth in Greek myth, and over the next six weeks he gets to know her as well as a human can know a creature with no spine, no bones even, and nine brains—one in the head and one in each of its eight limbs.
Gaia’s decentralized nervous system, and how she moves and makes decisions, will help Dominic arrive at an idea, one he’ll share two years later at a NASA-sponsored conference for astrobiologists—researchers who study the possibility of life on other planets. If alien life does exist out there in the cosmos, he argues, it behooves us to understand alternative modes of intelligence like that of octopuses.
With his interest in Gaia, Dominic joins a long legacy of people in the Pacific Northwest drawn to the species, from researchers like himself, to sea captains, fishermen, athletes, and artists. Many of them would likely recognize his cosmic notion.
It’s radical until you take into account just how otherworldly the animals truly are. Or when you consider how humans in the Pacific Northwest have experienced the creature over the past century.
On May 18, 1899, captain Thomas Peabody is manning the Willscott, a 267-foot sailship bound for British Columbia, when, at 2:30pm, several hundred miles northwest of San Francisco, a crew member calls his attention to commotion in the water. The men make out two objects and reach for the telescope. Through the glass they see one is a sunfish, bigger than a kitchen stove, thrashing in the water. The second, larger object the captain will later describe as a “monster.”
Peabody’s no greenhorn. In his nearly 50 years, many of them at sea, he’s witnessed a lot; two decades earlier he survived a burning vessel and later narrowly escaped with his wife and daughter the shipwreck of the New York in Half Moon Bay. He’s an avid reader of history, especially of Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages, and of literature, like Victor Hugo’s “A Struggle with a Devil-Fish,” so he’s long imagined confronting a giant sea beast. But the sight of this enormous octopus stuns him. He orders the Willscott in for a closer look.
Its mouth resembles a parrot’s bill; the skin rapidly changes color, from gray to various hues, presumably in a pique of excitement. Then, abruptly, the octopus discharges a blast of black ink into the sunfish’s eyes, wraps its eight slimy tentacles around the prey, and plunges with it deep into the ocean. All that’s left to see is the pool of ink that floats on the surface, spreads all around the vessel, and emits the sharp metallic odor of iodine.
Seventeen years later Peabody will die in a home for retired sailors and ship captains, where he no doubt had one hell of a story to tell over and over. His account appears in newspapers from Washington state to New Jersey. But for now the Willscott pushes north. Twenty minutes later the octopus reemerges alongside the ship. This time the animal appears calm, placated as it devours its hard-won meal, “rolling the body of the unfortunate sunfish over and over and biting off large mouthfuls with its cruel looking beak.”
One hundred and twenty years later, nearly to the day—May 26, 2019—a camera phone captures an escape. In the footage, shaky as though the person holding the phone can’t believe what he’s filming, the creature, unfurled against the plexiglass, inches upward. One tentacle, then another reaches over the enclosure’s rim. Off camera, a child gives voice to the crowd’s excitement: “Look at it!” As the realization dawns that this isn’t part of the show, that the animal is emerging out of the roofless tank and toward them, the crowd’s glee breaks into nervous laughter. The eight-limbed cephalopod, named Bailey by Seattle Aquarium staff, pulls herself all the way out of the tank and comes crashing down some 10 feet onto the floor, sending guests running as if the octopus were a bull in the streets of Pamplona.
She lands on her back, the suction cups of her arms facing up, then twists herself upright and spreads out, six feet limb to limb, and eyes the astounded throng of aquarium visitors.
Bailey’s jailbreak, filmed and uploaded to YouTube by multiple witnesses, hardly constitutes an anomaly. As a species, Enteroctopus dofleini, better known as the giant Pacific octopus, has a bit of a reputation. Octopuses have been caught in the act of squeezing through fist-size boat bilge pumps, or sneaking out of one tank and eating starfish in another.
Trip Ochenski is one of those YouTube posters, though not of the shaky-cam clip. A pastor from the Dallas area on vacation with his wife, Erin, and their two friends, Ochenski framed Bailey in his camera phone lens just before she plummeted.
It’s the highlight of their Seattle trip, one already filled with contrasts between northcentral Texas and Western Washington—the weather, the people, the horizon of lush, jagged Olympics versus the rolling Blackland Prairies. Not to mention the marine fauna.
“My wife is actually extremely freaked out by any kind of sea life,” he says. Just before the escape, Ochenski and friends teased Erin, “joking about how funny it would be if that thing climbed out to get her.” Fortunately for Erin she was in another section of the aquarium when Bailey broke out.
That hasn’t put an end to the jokes. Five months later Ochenski and friends will say things like, Bailey’s trying to find Erin, all the way in Texas. A piece of Seattle that’s taken root in their imaginations. “We literally talk about it all the time. It’s ridiculous, but it’s a thing.”
In September 1903, four years after Captain Peabody’s encounter, campers on Vancouver Island return to Seattle and share a harrowing tale that previews the tone of human-octopus relations throughout the early twentieth century. While crabbing a mile from camp, a member of the party at the bow of the boat spears an octopus between the eyes, either on a whim or as a defensive measure (the accounts vary). The octopus, still alive, sticks two tentacles inside the boat and simultaneously grasps some kelp below, nearly turning the boat over and sending six people into the water, a fate they escape by bludgeoning and stabbing the 200-pound animal to death.
After that the archives reveal locals agog at—and terrified of—the eight-limbed creatures in their midst. In January 1906 The Seattle Times chimes, “Largest devilfish” (then a colloquial term for octopuses) “ever captured on the Sound hauled out near Port Madison by a fisherman.” Its longest arm measures 18 feet. Three months later, another fisherman beats the record when he catches an octopus nearly 40 feet long from tip to tip. The animal, the Times reports, “attempted to haul the fisherman overboard by grasping his leg with one of its arms. A blow from an oar soon put the beast out of trouble.”
The octopuses’ reputation continues to sink. They’re described as “ugly sea monsters,” after yet another confrontation, accompanied by this advice: “To get rid of them, once they have taken hold of anything, it is necessary to cut them into mincemeat.” Gone is Captain Peabody’s language of wonder. An octopus, now, is something to be feared and conquered.
In 1910, one attaches itself to a schooner off the coast of Camano Island and wraps one tentacle around the captain’s leg, nearly pulling him into the sea before the men on board, in a battle that lasts half an hour, sever two tentacles. Near Tacoma, in April 1922, an octopus encircles itself around a diver, immobilizing his arms and blocking access to a knife. One tentacle nearly cuts off the diver’s air supply before he’s hoisted from the water and several people at the surface flog the creature off him.
That encounter will prove an omen. A few months later, also near Tacoma, a human fatality. Albert Garness, 19, drowns after an octopus reportedly drags him off his fishing boat.
The rhetoric and violence, and even the loss of human life, were likely the result of a misunderstanding, a fundamental misread of octopus biology, suggests Kathryn Kegel. As Seattle Aquarium’s lead invertebrate biologist, Kathryn has spent countless hours in the water with octopuses. When touched by an unknown animal, she says, humans impulsively jerk away. But an octopus’s “reaction is to hold onto you tighter, because they don’t want to get hurt.” They instinctively keep steady anything that might harm them. When a fish flops around, an octopus grips harder, to control it. So what seemed like an attack to the people in those long ago interactions was natural, largely innocuous behavior met with overreaction. “It’s just their way of checking you out. They don’t like to fight. They’re not fighters.”
Tall, with red hair that falls just beyond her shoulders, the octopus’s greatest ambassador in Seattle grew up in Aberdeen, where she spent much of her childhood at the beach. She studied environmental science at Western Washington University, in Bellingham, and landed at the Aquarium 13 years ago, right after graduation. Her mentor here was Roland Anderson, then one of the most prominent octopus experts in the country; he founded a biennial conference, attended by people from as far away as Japan. He showed Kathryn how to capture octopuses, care for them during their time at the Aquarium, and release them back into the Sound to finish out their lives. When he retired in 2009 she took his place.
There’s something about transformation and adaptation that seems to keep Kathryn (who once underwent a live makeover when NBC’s Today show filmed at Pike Place Market) enthralled with octopuses. How they change their skin color to match their surroundings. How they deploy their ink, James Bond–like to distract and escape from, say, a shark in pursuit. How they turn empty crab shells into temporary shelters. How they can squeeze through the tiniest of holes, as long as they can fit their beak—the only thing resembling a bone in their body—through it.
But mostly she admires their cunning. She once led guests into the back room where the Aquarium holds the octopuses not on display, and set food on the closed lid of an adjacent tank while she introduced the guests to an affable tenant. The visitors marveled at the octopus as it latched onto them with its tentacle suctions, the coin-size feelers octopuses use to taste and smell. The animal kept Kathryn and the guests busy with seven of its arms. With the other it surreptitiously reached out to the food, sneaking it away until Kathryn finally wised up.
By midcentury locals have turned octopuses’ erroneous reputation as fierce fighters into a sport. On April 21, 1957, Seattle hosts the first World Octopus Wrestling Championship. Squads of three “wrestle” as many specimens out from Puget Sound as possible. The trio with the heaviest haul wins. Among the rules: “Teams must present evidence of previous octopus-wrestling experience, because this is a somewhat dangerous event.”
The annual tournament runs for more than a decade, drawing thousands of spectators and eventually making its way into an episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The appeal seems to lie in the behavior Kathryn Kegel describes more than 60 years later, the octopuses’ instinctual need to latch on and hold objects steady, which gives the impression that diver and animal are pitched in mortal battle.
In 2018, when the now defunct sport’s most decorated champion, now in his 80s, reflects back, he admits that octopuses are hardly ferocious, telling a British newspaper, “They’re not very aggressive. They have good suction, but if you get their arms and pull the suction cups…they don’t have a lot of holding strength.” By then, humans had come to see just how gentle octopuses could be, how capable of making a connection with a species nothing like their own.
Annie Marie Musselman travels from her home on Vashon Island to Pier 59, enters the Seattle Aquarium, and steps into a back room, where white cisterns and pipes gargle with water. She reaches a pair of square objects that look like large safes, or maybe horizontal refrigerators. They’re lidded with multiple latches to prevent what’s inside from escaping. An Aquarium employee unfastens and lifts one of the lids and through the burbling water emerges Zoey.
Annie pulls out a camera.
As a photographer for national newspapers in the ’90s and early 2000s, Annie shot some of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest boldface names. Here’s Bill Gates, caught mid-chortle—head cocked back, face split in a toothy laugh—for a New York Times article about Microsoft’s growing pains. Here’s Howard Schultz staring into the middle distance next to a bag of Brazilian coffee beans. And less boldface: A Seattle cab driver who dresses as Elvis during shifts, popping his collar for the camera in a moment of rockabilly triumph.
She could have continued that way, presumably for decades, showing the rest of the country human faces from the Pacific Northwest. As she came to terms with the loss of her mother, who died in 2002, something in Annie changed, stirred her to go deeper than trivial human matters. She turned to animals at a wildlife rehabilitation center, documenting their recovery, including that of a wounded raven. Later she pointed her lens at wolves in a sanctuary near Mount Rainier. (Both projects resulted in books.) She found that if she spent enough time with the animals and just sat still and listened and watched, she could capture something meaningful, something that spoke to the interconnectedness of all life.
In January 2019 the Aquarium grants her permission to photograph one of its denizens. For an hour a week she sits with Zoey, a fuchsia-colored octopus that frequently reaches out and wraps her tentacles around Annie’s hand. The suctions, when they make contact, feel like light pinches, gentle tugs at the skin. Removing them takes some force, but Annie is fearless.
The visits become meditations. Portals into another dimension as Zoey holds her stare, looking right into the camera lens. These sessions come to remind Annie of the movie ET. Because here are two beings from different worlds connecting through the power of touch.
She’s heartbroken when, after seven weeks, Zoey is scheduled to return to the Sound, released to live out the remainder of her days. Heartbroken, but also happy for her cephalopod muse.
She’s there for the bon voyage at Pier 59. The Aquarium films it underwater and projects it on a screen inside for the gathering crowd. Annie, there with her kids, watches Zoey climb down a piling attached to the pier. Annie steps closer for a better look and—poof—Zoey speeds off like a rocket, deep into the bay, back to that other world.
Our long, sometimes tumultuous relationship with octopuses in Seattle has settled into something nearing reverence. We once called them ugly monsters. Now we plaster their likeness on our restaurants and tattoo it onto our arms. We once bludgeoned them with oars and brawled with them for sport. Now we’ve elevated octopuses to what in this secular era passes for gods: extraterrestrials.
Annie Marie Musselman and Dominic Sivitilli, who found Gaia near San Juan Island, aren’t the first to make that connection. Space Amoeba, a Japanese flick from 1970, stars an octopus-like invader. Every Halloween since 1990 Simpsons fans reunite with Kang and Kodos, octopus-like villains in space helmets. And in 2016’s Arrival—based on a short story by Seattle-area author Ted Chiang—Amy Adams’s character meets interstellar cephalopods who communicate with her via ink blots. But Dominic’s work, under the guidance of UW psychology professor David Gire, gives the notion some computational ballast.
On a recent fall day, the grad student stands in a lab at the university’s Guthrie Hall, home of the psych department. He wears a black T-shirt, dark green trousers. His hair falls to the middle of his back. Four aquariums—the kind you buy at a pet store—are arrayed around the lab, a space as dim as a college dorm that roommates might illuminate with lava lamps and black lights. Except here it’s glowing tanks that house the world’s most perplexingly smart marine life.
In one tank swims Fractal, a two-year-old a little bigger than a human hand (if that hand had eight fingers, nine inches long). An East Pacific red octopus, Fractal is smaller than giant Pacifics like Gaia or Zoey and has half the life expectancy. Soon he’ll show signs of deterioration. He’ll stop eating and grow increasingly listless, less willing to interact with humans.
But for now, Fractal moves, and those movements are wild to behold, like watching dye poured into a glass of water. Every position he takes is the first time not only Fractal but any octopus ever has been in that position. The possibilities are infinite because octopuses exist in a state of perpetual novelty as they sort out the complex negotiations of their motion. Each arm, with its own brain inside, moves completely independent of the others. So much so that arms have been known to steal food from each other.
It’s these movements, and how the arms gather information and make decisions—which he also observed in Gaia—that helped lead Dominic to his extraterrestrial life hypothesis: Understanding alternative forms of intelligence on our planet will better equip us to identify it on others. This past summer, after he presented at the NASA-sponsored astrobiology conference, his work gained the attention of science journalists around the country, including those at PBS’s Nova.
It’s that first encounter, though, he thinks of most.
At Friday Harbor, Gaia became a kind of celebrity. All the other researchers wanted to meet Gaia. “It was almost like I was her agent,” Dominic says. But as the summer of 2017 came to a close, Dominic prepared to release her. His emotions were mixed. Taking care of her was like taking care of a child, keeping her engaged, constantly making sure she didn’t find a way to escape her tank and hurt herself. But he’d also made a deep connection, not unlike the one Annie shared with Zoey at the Seattle Aquarium, a bridge through evolutionary time and space.
There was no blastoff when Gaia returned home. Near the place where he found her, west of San Juan Island, Dominic coaxed her out the mesh bag. She felt around with her limbs, taking in her surroundings. Then, deciding she was exactly where she wanted to be, she slipped below a big piece of kelp.