Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
There are plenty of ways to research a novel at arm’s length: Internet, libraries, books, conversations with practicing professionals. But sometimes you have to step in a little closer, get your hands on the real thing.
For some time now, that real thing for me has been a living, thinking octopus, the basis for several characters in my present-day alien-contact novel-in-progress.
I had read about these wily animals, seen video evidence of their astonishing feats of camouflage and intelligence, and asked about a zillion questions of patient professionals. Still I needed to know what the critter felt like. How slippery or squishy or cold might those eight arms be? And how tightly might those suckers grip? What would their skin, with its quick-changing colors and textures, actually look like? How might I feel, looking into the eyes of an octopus that was looking back at me?
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, it happened. Big “Thank you!” to the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
I first saw the large, reddish Great Pacific Octopus clinging suckers-out onto the thick glass of his tank in the aquarium’s Hall of Fishes. Those suckers were impressive, but it was hard to tell from that tangle of arms just what he looked like, and certainly no way I could reach in for a quick handshake.
Wandering out to the seaside plaza, I found a dozen or more middle-schoolers petting the residents of a tide-pool aquarium. When I asked, one of the staffers on duty there pointed me to a sea cucumber as the next best thing to touching an octopus. So I too, the oldest kid in the bunch, reached into the chilly water and touched carefully, as directed, with no more than two fingers. Cold and soft and squishy the sea cucumber certainly was, and not too slippery for comfort.
But friends, he wasn’t an octopus.
Meanwhile, back in the Hall of Fishes, my husband had arranged a visit with the real thing. Yay! Jenn Moffitt, a trained marine biologist and the aquarium’s Director of Husbandry, ushered us into the dark space behind the scenes. She emphasized that it is never wise to handle any animal without proper training. Then she removed a panel from the lip of a tank, and there, in a wash of blue light, was the big guy himself.
I touched his arm, holding only the lower end of it as Jenn directed, felt it slide between my fingers, felt the surprising strength of even the smaller suckers near the tip. His flesh was a bit firmer to the touch than the sea cucumber’s, colder too. And really slippery. This is good, among other things, for sliding free of an attacker’s grasp while still holding tight with his suckers to whatever he wants. Another theory suggests that it keeps his boneless arms from tangling into knots. Well, maybe.
Some color shift was subtly discernible, even under the blue light, and Jenn pointed out 1-to-2-inch triangular extrusions on his head. These, she said, seem to appear when he is thinking. When she touched one of them I was surprised at how easily it flexed, not at all the rigid structure it appeared. Hmn. Interesting insight into the tricks of this master of disguise.
Sadly, I never quite achieved an eye-to-eye with him, and our visit was done.
Maybe next time.
We left him to his unimaginable thoughts.
Thank you, Jenn.