Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus is an enlightening and thought-provoking read into the underwater world of octopus consciousness and the complexities of people’s relationships with the enigmatic, predatory animals.
Montgomery, a naturalist and acclaimed author of 20 nonfiction books, had heard that octopuses — yes, that’s the correct plural, not octopi — were smart and wanted to learn more.
The book opens with Montgomery trekking to the New England Aquarium in Boston, where she has “a date with a giant Pacific octopus.” Here we meet Athena, who delights Montgomery with a gaze she describes as “serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom and stretching beyond time.”
The colorful cast of characters continues as Montgomery meets Octavia, a dark brown, thorny octopus who camouflages to avoid detection and drenches anyone she doesn’t like with water; Kali, an escape artist aptly named after the Hindu goddess of destruction who yearns for her freedom; and Karma, a gentle beauty who arrives at the aquarium via a transatlantic flight in a barrel of dirty water barely big enough to hold her.
The octopuses each hold a unique lesson for Montgomery, but their tentacled reach extends to their other human caretakers as well. Bill and Wilson are deeply devoted to the animals under their care and struggle with the difficult daily choices they have to make, and Anna, a troubled teen with Asperger’s syndrome, finds a refuge in the quiet depths of the aquarium.
Into these overlapping narratives, Montgomery peppers interesting facts about the unique animals — including that octopuses’ mouths are in their armpits, and that the largest octopus discovered to date was a 300-pound colossus, with an arm span of 32 feet.
While most of the book is a fascinating romp through fun-filled anecdotes of the octopuses’ antics and the connections she forms with the animals and their caretakers, Montgomery does hit a few serious notes.
She explores the portrayal of octopuses in popular literature throughout the years, and probes how those perceptions fuel some people’s aversion to the intelligent, solitary animals.
After a scuba diving trip on the island of Cozumel, where she witnesses wild octopuses frolicking happily in their natural environment, she questions the ethics of catching and captivating them for people’s viewing pleasure.
And while sitting at a church service overseas, her comprehension thwarted by a language barrier, Montgomery takes a deep dive into essential questions about the soul.
“What is the soul? Some say it is the self, the ‘I’ that inhabits the body,” she writes. “Others say that soul is our innermost being, the thing that gives us our senses, our intelligence, our emotions, our desires, our will, our personality and identity.”
“I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew,” she continues. “If I have a soul — and I think I do — an octopus has a soul, too.”
The only drawback of the book for me — and it was a significant one — was that Montgomery seems to gloss over the cruelty of some of the experiments performed by scientists, including invasive procedures such as blinding octopuses, that led to the scientific facts that she proffers as proof of octopuses’ intelligence.
As sentient creatures, with value in their own right, octopuses do not deserve to be subjected to unnecessary, painful, and sometimes deadly studies so that humans can understand them better.
Overall, The Soul of an Octopus is a funny, intriguing, riveting, and sometimes heartbreaking read that will give readers a new appreciation and understanding of these intelligent, spunky, complex, and beautiful animals.
P.S: Those who still can’t get enough of octopuses after reading Montgomery’s book can check out My Octopus Teachers on Netflix for more deep-water adventures.
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