Ever since I was very small, I’ve been enraptured by the animal kingdom. And I was very lucky: My mom fueled this fire by taking me to as many zoos, aquariums, wildlife centers and nature parks as possible on our family travels. It was a big part of my upbringing. Now, as a semi-autonomous and somewhat-functioning adult, I still manage to find ways to go to these places as much as humanly possible.
The most recent of these visits was to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
After the exhausting whirlwind that was my START orientation at Oregon State this summer, I was feeling a little bit panicked about the whole moving-across-the-continent-for-college ordeal. Being a native East Coaster from North Carolina, the move to Oregon was going to be quite a shift for me. I was excited, yes, but a heavy dose of nerves was definitely there too. And what was the one thing that could make me feel myself?
“Dad, can we drive out to Newport? There’s an aquarium there!”
And so we did. It was mostly empty on that sleepy Wednesday afternoon, and I happily roamed around the exhibits, lost and immersed in my own underwater world.
Rounding the corner from some dozing sea otters, I approached my favorite animal, the Great Pacific Octopus. As I walked toward the tank, however, a disgruntled family was heading in the opposite direction, expressing frustration. “Why didn’t it come out?” they were complaining. “Why was it hiding in a hole like that?”
As they made their way noisy way out, I slowly walked up to the glass window of the octopus’ tank. It would appear completely devoid of life if it were not for the single, telltale tentacle spilling out from a small dark crevice in the corner.
Even though I couldn’t see more than this lone tentacle, a flood of simple respect washed over me for this incredible creature. The intelligence of these mollusks is legendary among biologists. I’ve heard many a story of their cunning and wit, whether it be outsmarting predatory sharks three times their size, or figuring out how to make a coconut shell a useful tool for shelter. I closed my eyes and placed my hand on the glass, and smiled to myself. I was, and still am, in love with the fact that these animals exist in the world.
I sighed, and opened my eyes. And splayed out on the bottom of the tank, big and bold and totally orange, was the octopus, come out from hiding in its watery cave. And I swear it was looking at me.
Some part of me will always doubt it, but the larger and more playful side of me believes that the animal felt what I was feeling and came out to say hello, or at least to investigate. A volunteer told me later that the nocturnal octopus rarely comes out during the day, and that I was lucky to be able to witness it.
Lucky, yes. I felt wonderfully lucky to be able to share that moment with that phenomenal cephalopod. But was it happenstance? Who knows, but that creature sure had a wonderful effect on me, and maybe, just maybe, I had a similar effect on him.
Madelaine Katz is a freshman in the University Honors College majoring in zoology.