My Octopus Teamster

Emilie K. Adin

© Copyright 2024 by Emilie K. Adin

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash
 Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

In the waning months of the last millennium, I met a doe-eyed octopus who turned out to be more of a buck. It changed me. Coming face to eyeball with this creature is a moment wrapped tightly around my temporal lobe. Octavia—as I like to remember her—reminds me of the charismatic octopus “teacher” of documentary fame; with more braun. So began my love of cephalopods.

I encountered Octavia midway on my grand tour of Southeast Asia. I was a semi-smelly backpacker in my 20s, booting around Thailand. A superficially typical young traveler sustained by contradictions, with a low-budget tour guide in one hand, my Scrabble board and dictionary grasped in the other. I avoided crowds, skirting the all-night Full Moon party in swing at the southern tip of the island, Koh Pha Ngan. A family-run resort on the north coast beckoned. Next to a bay as shallow and warm as a kiddy pool, I settled in. Faded Christmas decorations were propped up or hanging limply, set in an incongruous backdrop of azure blue. It was homey.

These were halcyon days when I knew how to relax. Hours lifted out of time, childhood revisited. I’d spend hours wading around the clearwater bay, crouching, straightening up and moving on, collecting shells, sinking my feet into the wet white sand, my toes like sea worms as they poked out of the surf.

One morning as I waded, I caught sight of the lip of a jar, which lay mostly submerged below the milling knee-high water. Early morning sunlight was refracted through the glass. Peering down the mouth of the jar, I saw patterns of burnt orange and creamy white and pink pastel and ebony, nestling against one another at odd angles. My spirits rose as I realized I'd found the ultimate shortcut for my shell collection—a chance to harvest the fruits of someone else’s labors!

I bent and tugged gently at the glass. It took more energy than I expected to wrench it free. At first, nothing seemed out of sorts. The jumble of shells was geegawed but immobile. I grinned to myself and began taking long strides, a giant over these shrunken waters. I was wading to shore with my treasures in hand.

What is that feeling that stopped me, mid-stride, that held me in its palm, that bid me to wind my head sideways until I spied something peeking out at me from between the shells in the jar? It took three fractions of a second, or three seconds, or three eternities, for me to clock what I was looking at: the yellow-ringed eyeball of a live sea creature. I held up the jar like a trophy, communing with the octopus eye to eye.

As I looked on, a tentacle slipped up the side of the glass. Stretching past the intense gaze of the octopus (who I’d dubbed Octavia by that point), suction cups closed around a small shell she’d found enroute. Watching the movement, I was mesmerized. I began lowering the jar, settling back on my heels. Time slowed down—or did it speed up? I can recall peeking over the mouth of the jar—whereupon the octopod flung the shell out at my face.

I was startled but amused. Exhilarated. Octavia was a toughie, but my main feeling for her was wild appreciation. I was already wishing to return her to the bay but also keen to get a photo of me holding the jar aloft. I began anew to rush through the water, then over the sand.

The octopus continued to throw shells at me, trying to rule over me with an iron tentacle. I was not dissuaded. At one point soon after, when I paused to peer into the gaping mouth of the jar, Octavia changed tack. The mollusc had decided to up the ante. Her beak crested the water and she spit at me. I was still too elated to do anything but chortle, but my guilt strings played a more mournful tune. I swung back towards the bay, cupping handfuls of sea water and sloshing them over the octopus and her mantle of shells, hoping to placate her. Seemed to do the trick. After a few more efforts to spit me into submission, Octavia soon went back to avidly watching me through the glass.

By this juncture, I felt galvanized, buoyed with care and speed. I found myself skating over the sand, my jouissance held high and wrapped in glass, bright against the sun. I arrived at the wooden huts that were set back from the beach, and called out to my sleeping friend to run outside with a camera.

I got my photo. Beyond the eyeball to eyeball communion I’d been having with Octavia, beyond her small-but-mighty shell-throwing and spitting, and my own loping across the water and sand, my strongest memory of the day is my face manically thrown wide with a smile that threatened to overtake my eyes. In that moment, I was swept into a life of amateur teuthology; my love of octopods standing the test of time, over many decades.

Once I had the photo, I rushed back to the bay, mostly-burying the jar again. I bid my friend, equal parts angry and curious, adieu. Salut, Octavia. You were formidable; the true hero of this story.

Where does that bring me? I’ve had more years on this bluegreen earth since I “caught” that octopus than I’d had before the magical day long ago. I get caught up watching eight-legged molluscs whenever I come across them in an aquarium or on video. I’ve exceeded a life sentence in my time of not eating octopus. I’ve volubly bemoaned the world’s first octopus fishery in Spain. My deep conviction is that the octopus is one of many animals too intelligent, too sensitive, to be held in captivity.

I’ve passed my love for octopi along to my kids. Hank the curmudgeonly Octopus of Finding Dory commands our endearment. My youngest goes everywhere with Percy the (stuffed, pink) Octopus tucked solidly under her arm. Hank and Percy and innumerable others claim my affections, sure, but Octavia is the true original, with grit and punk-forward determination. A sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say? Never have I so enjoyed getting spit upon.

Emilie K. Adin is a practicing city planner, the President of the Planning Institute of British Columbia and and an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Emilie was recently recognized by 
Business in Vancouver (BIV) Magazine as one of the 500 Most Influential Leaders in BC. She's currently writing The Urban Curious Guide to Europe (working title), a book that braids together a popular history of city planning in Europe with personal memoir.

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