The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

"SupportThe Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Atria Books, 2015

Genre:  Non-fiction

Rating: 4/5

Sy Montgomery is a Naturalist.  She has spent her life studying and exploring a variety of animals ….. but all vertebrates.  And then she discovered octopuses — and decided these eight-limbed invertebrates were not only worth studying, they were worth befriending.  Spending countless hours at the Boston Aquarium, as well as observing them in their natural environment, Sy discovers that octopuses are incredibly intelligent, playful, and actually have distinct personalities.  Go figure.

A month ago, if you had given me tickets to see an octopus at the aquarium, I would have grudgingly said thanks and then wondered what the heck I had done to make you so angry with me.  Slimy, ugly, scary, misshapen heads, suckers galore, and way too many legs …… who wants to go see that?  An octopus is like the sea equivalent of a spider, but ten times worse, because it can seriously kill you.  If you doubt me, just watch the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  No thank you.

A month ago, if you had given me a book on octopuses (apparently that really is the plural form of octopus), I would have had the same reaction.  What had I done to make you so angry with me?  I certainly never would have dreamed I would have shed a tear over an octopus.

But then my husband started reading The Soul of An Octopus, and began sharing little snippets with me along the way.  I became intrigued.  I found myself silently wishing he would hurry up and finish the darn book so that I could read it.  Read faster, Jimmy!!!   Alas, patience is not one of my strong suits.  When at last he handed it over, I immediately cracked the cover.  And I was not disappointed.  In fact, now I can’t wait to go to the Seattle Aquarium to go see some octopuses myself!

Sticking with the theme of eight, here are my eight observations having finished The Soul of an Octopus:

  1. Octopuses are incredibly cool and complex.  I was amazed to learn that they have distinct personalities and can recognize and react to people.  They are clever enough to solve puzzles and can play with as much enthusiasm as my own pup.  Who knew?
  2. Sy is a really good storyteller. I enjoyed her stories of the four octopuses that she engages with during her time at the Boston Aquarium.  Her awe of these creatures is both captivating and contagious.
  3. The use of similies gets a bit sappy at times.  “…… my breath rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise, here I am.”  Just push through.  What you learn about these amazing creatures will make these slightly annoying transgressions all worthwhile.
  4. The Soul of an Octopus is NOT a scientific journal.  You will be disappointed if that is what you seek.  The style is more of a personal journal, with scientific facts thrown in rather than a scientific study.  But don’t get me wrong, you will learn a lot about the biology, behavior and anatomy of octopuses and other sea creatures.  But you will also learn a lot about Sy and the cadre of experts and volunteers that she engages with at the Boston Aquarium.
  5. I am not a fan of deliberately capturing animals to put on display.  I recognize that it is important to do in order to raise awareness and doing so also enhances our ability to learn about other species.  But it does make me sad to think that aquariums deliberately go out and pay for others to capture wild animals to put on display.  Sigh.
  6. (While I hate the thought of octopuses being captive), I would definitely love to stick my arm into a tank so I could pet an octopus.  Yes, I know that is completely hypocritical.  The good is that because Sy does such an incredible job of describing the sensation of physically interacting with an octopus, I don’t have to be a hypocrite.  Thanks Sy.
  7. I am quite confident that I will never pursue getting certified to dive.  Sy’s description of getting her diving certification sounded like hell to me.  Cold water, ear piercing pain, disorienting dives, sharks, sharing wet suits others have peed in, breathing in an apparatus others have vomited in….… that’s a big fat NOPE.
  8. Despite the title, it is impossible to conclude whether octopuses actually have souls.  But my instincts and experience with other animals tells me that, depending on how you define a soul, most animals probably do have a soul of sorts.  In fact, most seem to have more soul than some people I know.  But that is an entirely different discussion……

Regardless of your beliefs about octopuses having souls, you are guaranteed to enjoy getting to learn more about these amazing creatures.

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