The Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s new Giant Pacific Octopus
This story was published in the Port Townsend Leader.
She’s friendly, but reserved. She likes to play, but she’s also dignified. She’s a lady, but she also likes to eat fish popsicles.
Her name is Eleanora, and she’s a Giant Pacific Octopus.
“We’re still getting to know each other a little bit,” said Ali Redman, aquarist at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, where Eleanora has made a new home among a kelp forest in an exhibit tank with fish, a pink starfish and a few other invertebrates. “She has a very distinct personality.”
Eleanora, who is roughly 2 years old, originally came from the area around Whidbey Island. She had been living at the Friday Harbor Laboratories, where she was helping researchers study the intelligence of the Giant Pacific Octopus. Now, Eleanora is a resident of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center aquarium, where she’s being featured in a film that Florian Graner, the underwater documentarian of Sealife Productions, is working on.
Graner will present some of his work at a lecture on “The Octopus Learning Project” at 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Fort Worden Chapel as part of the Marine Science Center’s “Future of Oceans” lecture series.
“I’m documenting how they’re bonding,” said Graner, who stops by the aquarium regularly to film Redman feeding Eleanora. “We’re trying to test her problem solving and learning capabilities to demonstrate what the Giant Pacific Octopus are really capable of.”
The Giant Pacific Octopus is a species that is native to the Pacific Ocean and is commonly found in the Puget Sound. According to National Geographic, the Giant Pacific Octopus grows bigger and lives longer than any other octopus species. The record size of one of these native octopi was 30 feet across and over 600 pounds. Eleanora, at roughly 2 years, is still young, but they usually only live for about five years.
The Giant Pacific Octopus is known for having a higher level of intelligence than most marine species, which complicates how the Marine Science Center takes care of Eleanora.
“There is a lot that goes into the care of any of our animals, but especially octopus because of their higher level of intelligence,” Redman said. “Fish don’t really do a lot of escaping.”
The aquarium had to take into consideration everything from how the tank where Eleanora lives is decorated, how much water goes through it, and how to make a secure lid so Eleanora can’t escape, Redman said.
“They’re very strong and very smart and they can be out of the water for some length of time,” Redman said. “There’s all these stories of octopuses getting out of the tank, getting into another tank and getting some fish.”
In her tank, Eleanora shares the space with two different species of schooling fish – who try to keep their distance from her, although they like to sneak some of her food occasionally – a giant pink sea star, anemones, a sea cucumber, and a few other marine invertebrates. Every creature at the aquarium is native to the Puget Sound.
“We hope she doesn’t eat the things in the tank with her,” Redman said, adding that so far, Eleanora seems to prefer eating frozen fish “popsicles.”
Eleanora also differs from most marine life in the aquarium because she needs a special “enrichment” program to keep her from getting bored.
“They are so smart, and because we want to encourage her to show off some of those cool behaviors, both for her sake and for visitors’ learning abilities, it’s important to have a good enrichment program,” Redman said. “Enrichment is just a way of giving her something more to do, and that can be in both food-related toys, such as fish frozen inside an ice cube, but it can also be nonfood related, as well. She does enjoy contact with her keepers.”
According to Redman, Eleanora will often be found hanging out on the side of her tank, watching passersby and grooming her suckers. She recognizes the people who feed her and enjoy giving them “tickles” with her tentacles. And she tends to be most active in the afternoon, when Redman wakes her up for a snack.
While Graner has been working on filming octopus in the wild, he hopes to see how bonds form between Eleanora and her keepers, like Redman, who work with her daily.
Jonathan Crossman, an intern at the aquarium, has also been helping Redman and Graner with the enrichment program, playing with Eleanora and recording her with a GoPro in the water.
“She’s been moving around her exhibit, feeling where everything is, exploring what her new area is,” Crossman said. “She likes to play with cold things a lot. Ice cubes work well as a fun little thing that is cold but also isn’t food. She plays with that a little bit and then it melts away.”
According to Graner, studying the intelligence of octopus in the wild can be difficult because they tend not to be too social.
“Generally they are not social and they retreat into their dens,” Graner said. “When they are in an aquarium, they actually become quite social, which is surprising for an animal that is so different from us.”
While Redman and Eleanora are still getting to know each other, Redman said she’s already started to see Eleanora’s personality. She’s not scared of people and she likes to play with the toys they have given her, but she’s also a bit reserved, said Redman.
To see Eleanora interact with Redman, it’s best to stop by the Port Townsend Marine Science Center aquarium in the later hours of the day, when she is most active. Now in their fall hours, the aquarium is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.