Alien x 8…

Author:  Sy Montgomery

Soul of an Octopus cover (163x250)There’s no particular reason humans should be able to understand other animals.  Truth be told, we often struggle to understand each other.  But there may be no intelligent creature more foreign to the human experience than the octopus.  For the past 500 million years humans and octopuses have evolved their substantial cognitive abilities on vastly different branches of the evolutionary tree, so that a seemingly impassable gulf now exists between the species.  How is a 98 degree, hairy, bony, air-breathing biped supposed to understand a 47 degree, boneless, eight-limbed, water-breathing blob covered in suction cups?  Well, acclaimed nature writer Sy Montgomery doesn’t let a little slime get in her way and in The Soul of an Octopus she sets out to find out if a human and an octopus can develop true friendship. The answer is as unexpected as it is profound.

Humans are excellent mind readers.  We spend much of our time trying to figure out what other people are thinking.  It might be the very thing we do best.  But this task can become much more challenging when we try and understand other animals.  We like to think that we can understand our cats and dogs, and much of the time we probably are pretty accurate in our assessment of their emotions.  But when it comes to a profoundly alien life form like an octopus, all bets are off.  So Montgomery – new to the ways of quick-witted mollusks – starts slowly, gradually adjusting to her new subjects’ approach to life.

Most of the book takes place at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where the author develops relationships with a succession of giant Pacific octopuses (they don’t live very long).  With her frequent visits she gets to know Octavia and Kali well and both cephalopods repeatedly demonstrate that they recognize her, as well as each of the aquarium staff members and volunteers, as individuals.  With passion and wit, Montgomery intimately describes her friendship with each octopus, often reveling in the antics of the other aquarium residents as well.

Suction cups aplenty...

Suction cups aplenty…


Well aware that a large fish tank or bucket hardly presents an octopus at its advantage, the author takes up scuba diving – with some often humorous trepidation – in order to meet her eight-legged friends in their element.  Off the shores of Cozumel and Mooréa, she develops a new perspective on the complicated lives these creatures lead.  She also travels to the Seattle Aquarium to observe octopus mating maneuvers, a rather complicated affair with all the extra limbs and such.

While Montgomery’s account includes all the usual interesting factoids and trivia that one expects in any nature book, it truly excels when it comes to describing the many relationships she and her colleagues develop with these remarkable creatures.  Wisely allowing her emotions run free, she fully immerses herself in the experience, leading to some truly profound – almost passionate – interspecific relationships.  At the same time she maintains enough insight to allow for fascinating reflection and analysis of her feelings, backing up her speculations and ideas with logic and objectivity.  Her willingness to span the gap between science and emotion makes for some absorbing reading.

Have you ever wanted to get into the mind of an octopus?  If your immediate answer is no, think again.  The idea that creatures as different as humans and octopuses can understand each other on any level is about as remarkable as it gets.  Effectively capturing the awe and wonder of real world alien encounters, The Soul of an Octopus is an entertaining account of one woman’s unique adventures.  Recommended for anyone who enjoys passionate nature writing.

— D. Driftless

Other reviews of books about marine life:  Kraken   /   Voices in the Ocean   /   Voyage of the Turtle

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (Hardcover)

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