Monterey Bay Aquarium: Beware the Kraken
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath the abysmal sea,
His ancient, sleepless, uninvaded sleep,
The Kraken sleepeth …
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
I remember the day I first saw a real octopus with a hazy, cinematic quality, like I was in shock, transfixed, short of oxygen. It was the same when I went to the Tentacles exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium recently.
My first octopus sighting was when I was in second or third grade. We were at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, although I don’t know how or why. At the time, we lived in tiny Hanover, Indiana, where my dad taught at the small Presbyterian college, and the largest body of water nearby was the Ohio River. Big entertainment for us was to ride bikes with our friends on campus or play in the woods, where we’d run on the trails, swing on ropes and wade in the creeks.
We almost never took vacations. There wasn’t enough money. I remember one to Washington, D.C., where we visited friends of my parents and saw the Lincoln Monument lit up at night and Carter’s Grove, a beautiful Virginia mansion said to be owned by ancestors of my grandmother, Mollie, who was a Carter before she married. And another to Yellowstone with my other grandparents, who had a trailer.
I don’t remember why we were in Chicago, but I remember the octopus.
The aquarium was like a cave, long dark rooms with burbling tanks filled with one exotic creature after another, none of which I’d ever seen.
The octopus was the one that made me catch my breath, its long arms crawling across the glass, suckers gripping, releasing, moving, gripping, releasing, its bulbous head, sloshing along, seeming too fragile and vulnerable, its hole where it sucked in water for propulsion fascinating, its black eye mesmerizing.
It seems like I stood there, watching it, for hours, but I’m sure my parents wouldn’t have let me stop for more than a few minutes.
Afterward, I bought a book of the aquarium exhibits in the gift shop, a luxury I rarely experienced. It was a heavy, although not large book, with a stiff cover, but not hardback. The pages were slick stock, the color photos crisp, including one of the octopus, with detailed blocks of informational text. I kept the book for decades, packing and unpacking it for each of our many moves. It may still be with my books in storage.
Once back at school, during art, I drew and cut out a large octopus, using crayons to give it a face, and watercolor paint to put a blue ocean film over it. Although in art and literature the octopus is often depicted as threatening, mine wore a big smile. I kept that, too, for years, even when one of its paper arms broke off.
As an adult, I’m quick to read about new octopus discoveries, to watch videos of them hauling coconut shells and broken bottles across the sea bottom to make protective homes, to read of their intelligence and playfulness. I knew, even as a kid, that they were awesome.
So when I saw Tentacles listed on the Monterey Bay Aquarium map, I hustled through the gorgeous light-filled spaces, past the display on John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, past the waving kelp forest, past the otters floating sleepily on their backs, past the art made of plastic discarded in the ocean, past the deep sea exhibit of sharks and tunas, drawn by the memory of a sucker on glass.
Finding the deep orange Giant Pacific octopus was like meeting an old friend. I stood and watched it, its long arms crawling across the glass, suckers gripping, releasing, moving, gripping, releasing, its fragile bulbous head, sloshing along, its propulsion hole opening and closing, its black eye winking at me.
I watched video of the octopus in the exhibit, greeting the caretakers, its arms crawling up theirs, identifying them through the taste and smell in its suckers, and another video of it changing colors on what seemed like a whim, from pale and sandy to a deep orange.
I stood and watched for what seemed like hours.
I saw its cousins, cuttlefish and the Nautilus, commanding their own attention, with curling, grasping, tentacles, huge eyes and beautiful shells.
I saw depictions of octopus on a Late Minoan Period vase from Crete from 1600-1100 BC, and in a Triton stone mosaic from the Roman Baths in Herculaneum in the first century BC, and in books like Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
And I understood, across the millennia, that I and those artists and writers, were all captivated in the Kraken’s tentacles.