The Octopus Whisperer

To keep the brainy creatures healthy in captivity, caretakers employ a variety of tricks, including dog toys.

The giant Pacific octopus looks like it’s trying to devour Chris Payne. The 15-pound mollusk, currently donning bright-red coloration, had swum near the edge of an aquarium tank and is wrapping her four-foot-long, powerful arms around Payne’s forearms. She latches onto his exposed skin with dozens of white suckers, tasting him. “She’d love to pull me in,” says Payne, bracing himself against the floor. “But there’s no chance of that.” As if in response, the octopus shoots a mighty spray of water directly at Payne’s waist.

“I knew that was going to happen,” he says with a laugh. He gently but firmly disentangles himself, the suckers making a “pop” as he breaks the seal, and closes the door atop the octopus’s tank.

For Payne, being soaked by an octopus or doused with cuttlefish ink is all in a day’s work. He’s a senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and for the several years he’s been caring for the octopuses, squid, cuttlefishes, and nautiluses featured in Tentacles, a special exhibition that opened in April 2014 and runs through 2016. As one of three primary cephalopod caretakers at the aquarium, he’s responsible for ensuring that the dozens of creatures on display, as well as many more hidden behind the scenes, stay healthy.

Juggling all of those animals is an immense undertaking. There’s the near-constant feeding, keeping tanks at just the right settings, and the calculus involved in ensuring there are enough youngsters offstage to bring into the spotlight when their time comes. Payne, who has exhibited jellyfish, sea horses, and sea dragons during his seven years as an aquarist, finds working with octopuses to be the most rewarding, and challenging, endeavor yet.

They’re so much stronger and smarter than we give them credit for. I’m constantly looking for new ways to offer them enrichment.

“They can fit into tiny spots, change color, change body patterns, and hide right in front of you,” says Payne. “They’re so much stronger and smarter than we give them credit for. I’m constantly looking for new ways to offer them enrichment.”

Payne has had 16 different octopus species under his purview during the exhibit (he’s currently caring for five species), and most of them occupy their own tank (for their well-being—males of all stripes begin fighting the moment they’re put together, for instance, and some species, such as the giant Pacific, Enteroctopus dofleini, die soon after mating).

“Nobody has exhibited octopuses on this scale before,” says Paul Clarkson, curator of husbandry operations at the aquarium. More specifically, no public aquarium has exhibited the diversity of cephalopods seen in Tentacles, he adds. “People wonder how on earth we’ve pulled it off. A lot of it is Chris, who with the other aquarists has really learned how to keep all of these different species in captivity.”

Watch Chris Payne and other cephalopod experts in this SciFri panel discussion.

Payne’s eight-armed wards range in size from about a pound to the tens of pounds and have their own unique behaviors and life histories. For instance, there’s the veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), also known as the coconut octopus, famous for using as armor coconut shells, clam shells, jars, or whatever else it can find, and carrying those tools along the seafloor. (“They’ll move their mobile home wherever they need to go,” says Payne.) The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus), meanwhile, is a true master of disguise, able to impersonate other local species and predators (I watched, agog, as one suddenly transformed from zebra-striped to a vibrant, mottled golden-red). Each wonderpus octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus) wears a unique pattern of spots on its body and stripes on its arms. Flapjack octopuses (Opisthoteuthis) have webbing between their arms—which allows them to scoop up their food—and live at crushing depths and in complete darkness in the wild.

Working closely with these animals, Payne has discovered that each individual has its own personality. One day octopus (Octopus cyanea)—named for its atypical activity when the sun is up—previously on display was “relaxed, chill.” But the one currently on display, which Payne collected earlier this year in the waters off Honolulu, is “an absolute terror,” he says. “He’s always ripping rocks apart, pulling up pipes, and plays a heck of a game of tug of war.” Payne points out the tank’s “backup security system”: a lining of AstroTurf, which octopuses have an aversion to, that prevents the troublemaker from trying to escape. “He’s also really good at figuring out puzzles,” adds Payne.

By puzzles, he’s referring to the tricky ways in which the aquarists deliver food to the larger octopuses, like the day and giant Pacific. A few times a week, handlers release live crabs, shrimp, or feeder fish for them to hunt, or they place frozen shrimp or fish inside an object and let the octopuses figure out how to get their dinner. They start them out easy, perhaps placing the food in a dog toy (“I’m always looking for new dog toys,” says Payne. “They love them.”). Payne has deployed jars with screw lids, and boxes within boxes of varying complexity, like those Russian nesting dolls. “Sometimes they figure it out in a minute, sometimes it might take 30 minutes, or hours,” says Payne. “Mixing it up keeps their brains and bodies occupied.”

All of the close observation has also yielded some important scientific discoveries, says Stephanie Bush, a deep-sea cephalopod scientist with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the aquarium’s partner institution. “Really basic information is not known for a lot of species in the wild,” she says, including lifespans, diet, and mating behavior. Bush was particularly excited when several flapjack octopuses laid eggs in the tank, revealing for the first time that this mysterious creature, found at depths around 1,000 feet, lays tiny eggs on rocks, and then covers them with sand.

“If people weren’t interested in going to aquariums and seeing these animals,” says Bush, “there wouldn’t be this invaluable addition of knowledge.”

New discoveries could be made soon. Bush and aquarium staffers, with the help of a remotely operated vehicle, have been routinely scouring a drop-off in Monterey Bay for cephalopods. Whatever they find, one thing is certain: Payne is ready to welcome any collected creatures to their new home.

Join Science Friday’s Sea Of Support

With every donation of $8 (for every day of Cephalopod Week), you can sponsor a different illustrated cephalopod. The cephalopod badge along with your first name and city will be a part of our Sea of Supporters!


Meet the Writer

About Alisa Opar

Alisa Opar is the articles editor at Audubon magazine and the Western correspondent for OnEarth.