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How I became friends with an octopus (bbc.com)
150 points by evo_9 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

I recommend Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent by Peter Godfrey-Smith.

A great read, reflecting on an Octopus "city" which was briefly established around some sea bottom clump.

The stories about how Octopuses escape routinely from enclosures in marine parks are fascinating.

(I realize this is off-beam from a story fundamentally about cross-species friendship, but I do think this book goes to a lot of questions around what another kind/form of intelligence might look like, if we were of a mind to look for it)

Other Minds is very good. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is similar but covers some different topics, including the author's relationship with a couple different octopuses.

This excerpt:

When the great white sees a human it scans us, its search image is picking up something that's not prey. ...They aren't animals that are after us, if they were, there would be attacks every day.

Reminds me of the bear documentary filmmaker who was killed by the bears he was observing:


That's what happens when you mistake "animal which doesn't think you're food" for "animal of a type which won't hurt you."

Nature's pretty good at opportunism. A well-fed bear might be fairly safe, while that same bear if starving would eat you without a second thought.

“Let me tell you something about Hew-mons, Nephew. They're a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people... will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon. You don't believe me? Look at those faces. Look in their eyes.” Quark, ST: Deep Space 9

I think this is why they had to bring in an enemy from across the galaxy for DS9. All the other militaristic Alpha Quadrant civilizations had seen humans in war and did not want to get on their bad side again. The Dominion hadn't yet seen first hand what lengths humans will go to when threatened.

From the episode "The Siege of AR-558." Well done episode, if kind of on the nose.


One of the best (and most unique) in the series. The interested viewer should also watch the equally – if not more – powerful "It's Only a Paper Moon", which resolves events from "Siege": http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/It%27s_Only_a_Paper_Moon_...

Precisely. Any reasonably survivable creature varies its behaviour depending on its current condition.

I love the HFY genre.

I was curious about this.

>The one attack a year is an aberration.

Is that just one attack a year in that specific region? There are certainly more than that globally. Earlier this year there were two attacks in Australia only hours apart.


It's about 50-100 a year world wide. The majority, oddly, in the US - seems even the sharks around here are more prone to violence. (No word on the Jets yet)

But, seriously, given that we kill 100 million of them every year, they're surprisingly nice to us.

Yes we'll, obviously US based sharks are being incited by the irresponsible rhetoric of the current administration.

Keep it cool, boy. Real cool.

Careful mon ami, someone might DANCE at you. Them pirouettes is scary.

I had a dive instructor one who had an interesting insight re attacks Hawaii. Surfer goes missing. Body is found later with massive, obvious, shark bites. Lungs full or water. Official story: surfer drowned and then was bitten. If a large shark wants to actually eat you, you aren't getting away to call it an attack. It is not abnormal for people to simply go missing on the ocean. If even a small percentage of these are attacks, the "one attack per year" mantra should be revisited.

I would not recommend swimming, or walking, around any apex predator. They are very confident animals and are therefore curious. Watch a puppy 'inspect' an unusual object. You might not survive such curiosity.

Google "red sea jaws", a story about a true rogue shark that attacked multiple people across several days. The animal has a deformed jaw and so the bites could be linked.

Another person was bitten in the same bay today;


Reminds me of that thing that comedian said. I forget who. He was saying something like:

A shark attack is when a shark with a baseball bat walks in to your living room while your watching a movie and says “shark attack!”.

When you get bitten by one while your swimming or surfing, that’s a well deserved ass whipping.

Reading that wikipedia article was very unsettling (I don’t know what else I expected though)

The film is much more unsettling.

Timmy the Fox! King of all foxes ...and all bears.

Great doc.

Grizzly Man (2005): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWA7GtDmNFU

I can't decide if I think it's real or fake. It's a very good doc and Timothy's footage could absolutely be real but the people interviewed, every single one of them, just come across as fake and very very bad actors.

Whenever the film comes up on Reddit I scan the comments and I've done a tiny bit of googling but it seems I'm in the minority with this opinion which I find strange since I can't fathom the interviewees are even close to genuine.

It's real. "could be real"? hehe. Yeah, Treadwell did his filming of himself, Herzog came along after his death and put together the movie, did the interviews, voiceover etc. He often encourages the bizarre in his docos, doesn't edit it out, often leaves the camera rolling on an interviewee ages longer than anyone else would - I love that. Uses the least appropriate music imaginable (which often works brilliantly) I know what you mean, they seem very, very odd. It's mainly that every other camera person/director tries to make things/people seem relatively normal, not-weird.

I've seen almost all Herzog's docos, all worth seeing, Grizzly Man is my favourite though. The one about the internet, from a couple of years ago, is one of his best also. Try Fata Morgana for weirdness, or the bleak/beautiful Lessons of Darkness, both set in the desert.

Given the title, there was disappointingly little content on the octopus

I once made friends with an octopus, also.

In my youth, during the southern Australian summer startup parts of the year, things would get warmer and warmer .. the sun staying up for longer and earlier and waking up the beach from the cold nights winter storm hangover, the awesome Indian Ocean water a bit docile, the winds calmer, perhaps, visibility getting less shark'y and more plankton'y, and in general a happy sea in the morning first-thing meant it was time for a swim. And so the daily ritual: goggles, flippers, a knife and a bag of treats, beach-bag: check.. I'd walk down to the spot, as it wasn't far from the family beach-house, and by the time I got to the water had deposited all earthly possessions behind me such that I could just splash my dive with the wave .. always a bit of a shiver at first, but then with clarity the ocean opens up its wonders.

This particular spot, and there were many for sure, but this particular one was just better to swim to, rather than walk up and over .. a spot just out past a reefy-beach, beyond a bit of a break, and then back onto a shallow reef a bit further from the beach. A bit of a swim and daunting in the deep bits, but if it were docile once you got there, the creatures were too. Playful, even. Chill.. A true ocean garden paradise of warm-weather nooks, holes, ledges, crannies, shelves, and a few scarey deep bits thrown in for pleasure. On the right day though, its like swimming in a giant bath-tub, although all your mates have the potential to kill you..

I can see it in my mind now, the back of my hand ahead of me as I take one last breath of air and dive down to the hole with a ledge... my bag of treats seemingly dropping into the hole with a mind of its own, and out spills the contents .. a few gold coins (well-polished with coca cola), a couple marbles, a flourescent rubber ball, like they used to make, heavy... all sinking into the shallow depth. And the inky tentacle reaching from the hole, catching each coin as it fell, glistening endlesly in the sun, to dark silence below. I float and watch, and of course the other objects cross my mind, but once the coins are gone, the octopus disappears for a few seconds .. probably inspecting the validity of the mint .. before returning in a gigantic splash of liquid being, all 8 tentacles extended, some kind of attack mode like .. how dare i enter this lair .. and then .. docile. friendly. just a big scareshow for the human, and anyway.. what else did i bring, oh yes .. the fluoro ball now has a bite mark in it, didn't like it .. marbles .. hmm ..

I go up, grab another breath, dive down .. can't see anything its just the hole with a ledge. Dive deeper, under the ledge, there it is .. guarding the horde. A few fish-hooks and sinkers down there, a thousand empty shells too, some kind of a collection. Would I call it a midden? Yes, I would. With my coins in it. Up for another breath, and down again to retrieve what treat I can, but of course the game is to get a coin from the lair, drop it from the surface, and let the sun do all the work. Not easy though, putting ones hand into an octopus lair when its guarding its midden.

I know this is going to sound weird, but to me it really seemed there was a sudden sweet-spot where the reflections would catch in a way that the octopus could see I was trying to play the game, and so it was that we played catch like this a few times that summer. It did give me one of the coins back eventually.

This was such a cool story, thanks for sharing your experience.

It's so sad that these terribly intelligent creatures die so young. Imagine what they could learn if they lived a few decades.

Fun fact from Wikipedia:

>Octopus reproductive organs mature due to the hormonal influence of the optic gland but result in the inactivation of their digestive glands, typically causing the octopus to die from starvation. Experimental removal of both optic glands after spawning was found to result in the cessation of broodiness, the resumption of feeding, increased growth, and greatly extended lifespans.

Pains of not being a mammal. Turns out if your children's lives don't depend on your filtered blood, protection and teaching skills, evolution doesn't optimize for you not starving after your reproductive organs mature. Fascinating.

I've always imagined if they lived a few decades they would have long ago invented a breathing apparatus that would allow them to survive on land and eliminated humans from competing with them at the top of the food chain.

Bad news for us, on the other hand, Mars would probably be colonized by now.

What would that look like? So like, some chimps see a monolith and then start using bones as blunt weapons - fast forward some millions of years and we’ve got machine guns. What is the octopus breathing apparatus version of that? Maybe that they carry shells with water in them to extend their time on the surface ever so slightly? They’d design rigid exoskeletons somehow, yeah? Out of shells, barnacles, something like that? Rigid exoskeletons with little shell-cups of water for short periods on the surface.

After that, they’re pretty much on track, no?

(Taking things too seriously)

I think the major obstacle facing octopi is that they're solitary. When an ape invents something, a dozen others in its troop learn it too, and maybe refine it a little, and teach it to their children who refine it some more. A tech-savvy modern human isn't much smarter than the earliest homo sapiens, but we have 200,000 years of R&D behind us. Octopi don't have those social bonds, and no one individual--however brilliant--can invent advanced tech alone, from first principles.

The other major obstacle is their reproductive cycle. Octopodes breed once, then die shortly afterwards. They don't live to pass knowledge on to their children, and there's no reproductive "reward" for individuals that are more successful in life -- so long as they survive to breed, that's it.

Yeah, that's part of the same thing, for sure. They don't share knowledge with other adults or with their own children, so nothing gets passed on.

They recently found an 'octopus city' .. wherein there seem to be social patterns emerging.

What's interesting to me is, what if Octopus suddenly evolve in the next 100 or so years, because of some input we humans gave them? That'd be neat.

Wouldn't they just dominate the seas? Being in the water would give them more real estate and would let them work with higher volumes, therefore growing/evolving faster. And since we are going there as result of 'out-teching' land people they would flood everything (by melting ice) and colonize land space.

I would say that they have their own mindset and culture distinct from ours. Who's to say that they would want to invent air breathing devices to explore the land, eliminate humans, or explore space if they were smarter or more organized?

I find it sad that we eat so many intelligent creatures, including octopus. Alas, B12 and certain other nutrients are only gotten from meat.

I find it reasonable to limit meat consumption to animals that were bred for that purpose, and I am satisfied with few types of meat and have no need for the more capricious varieties (eating things like horse is unnecessary. I'll stick with chicken).

This video is what triggered this thought process for me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqAmR1lEN0I (EDIT: I'd linked the wrong video)

I will certainly never eat octopus.

Just a tangent, but it might make your life easier (and other being's lives, too): You get B12s not only from meat, fish, eggs and milk but also from fermented food like sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, some seaweeds and fermented tea.

You're right about animal products like milk, eggs, etc, it slipped my mind because I've unfortunately been unable to eat those things for a long time (food intolerances).

I'm skeptical about the B12 in fermented foods - whether it's bioavailable and a usable form.

There's no reason to believe vegetarian B12 supplements don't provide the necessary health benefits.

>Alas, B12 and certain other nutrients are only gotten from meat.

There are alternative sources of B12 and every other nutrient we're aware of. Even if you doubt plant-derived/synthetic analogues, that still leaves dairy and eggs. There is very clearly no requirement for humans to consume meat.

>I find it reasonable to limit meat consumption to animals that were bred for that purpose[...]

Why is that? Is seems much more reasonable to me that, if you are going to eat animals, you would eat the ones that are not raised specifically for that purpose. Animals raised specifically for consumption have absurdly short lifespans (chickens for instance go from egg to slaughter in about 7 weeks) with most of them having little to no chance to lead anything resembling a normal, stimulating life. Is it not more reasonable to eat hunted animals who had the opportunity to experience real lives?

"Vitamin B12 is not made by plants or animals but by microbes that blanket the earth."

From: https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/vitamin-b12/

I eat food that is fortified with B12 and sometimes I take supplements. Blood work came back positive - not B12 deficient.

There are two extant genera of cephalopods able to live for a few decades in fact. Ironically they are the 'dumbest' (but are elusive and keep still a lot of secrets, so maybe this point of view could change in the future).

It was a surprise to see the Glaucus atlanticus photo. Didn't expected to see this 'blue dragon' in a kelp forest. Always photogenic and always dangerous.

A living proof that molluscs can be very alien in its own ways.

"They aren't animals that are after us, if they were, there would be attacks every day. If they see a seal, a fish or some of the other prey that's a different story but humans are not on their menu."

In my region (Cape Cod) we've seen an explosion in the seal population, which has attracted a large number of great white sharks. Two attacks last year, one fatal and the other could have also easily been (victim barely survived).

Seals swim just a few feet off of the very popular beaches here - it's only a matter of time until the next attack. Locals and tourists still have the mindset of "attacks are rare, driving is more dangerous!" - but I'm not optimistic that the frequency will continue to be so low.

all animals should be friends

"They aren't animals that are after us, if they were, there would be attacks every day. If they see a seal, a fish or some of the other prey that's a different story but humans are not on their menu."

Humans may not be on the preferred menu, but they're sure as hell a form of food and in times of scarcity the menu becomes flexible.

It's interesting that he was able to develop a close relationship with an octopus, but the romanticized crap about sharks seems both unnecessary and flawed.

What experience and knowledge do you have that is even close to that of the author and supports your "romanticized crap" characterization?

Seems that the author is speaking from a position of many years of experience in observing wildlife and a full year+ diving with these creatures every day.

Moreover, it's quite a solid point that if the sharks actually saw us as an 'on the menu' food source, there would be attacks more than daily. The general take from shark experts I've read seems to be that they are generally mistaking us for seals on occasion. For example, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, seals have started to increase in population, and shark incidents with swimmers/surfers have also increased.

I am not a diver, I've just read and seen enough about sharks and their attacks on humans to know there's enough contrary evidence to consider this diver isn't exactly a scientist.

My issue is he's making generalized statements about sharks based on years of diving in a specific region: the icy waters of cape town.

It seems perfectly obvious to me that his observation can equally be explained as "the sharks in the icy waters of cape town may be generally well-fed".

Frankly the article is nothing more than a thinly veiled advertisement for a book, and probably lacked substance if it stayed purely on-topic regarding the octopus. I expect the book to suffer similarly.

I've heard that sharks have a very highly developed sense of smell and they can detect a drop of blood from miles away in the deel ocean.

So how do they desperately fail at differentiating us humans from seals?

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