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The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

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In pursuit of the wild, solitary, predatory octopus, popular naturalist Sy Montgomery has practiced true immersion journalism. From New England aquarium tanks to the reefs of French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico, she has befriended octopuses with strikingly different personalities—gentle Athena, assertive Octavia, curious Kali, and joyful Karma. Each creature shows her cleverness in myriad ways: escaping enclosures like an orangutan; jetting water to bounce balls; and endlessly tricking companions with multiple “sleights of hand” to get food.

Scientists have only recently accepted the intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees but now are watching octopuses solve problems and are trying to decipher the meaning of the animal’s color-changing techniques. With her “joyful passion for these intelligent and fascinating creatures” (Library Journal Editors’ Spring Pick), Montgomery chronicles the growing appreciation of this mollusk as she tells a unique love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about the meeting of two very different minds.

261 pages, Hardcover

First published May 12, 2015

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About the author

Sy Montgomery

50 books1,325 followers
Part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson, as the Boston Globe describes her, Sy Montgomery is an author, naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and radio commentator who has traveled to some of the worlds most remote wildernesses for her work. She has worked in a pit crawling with 18,000 snakes in Manitoba, been hunted by a tiger in India, swum with pink dolphins in the Amazon, and been undressed by an orangutan in Borneo. She is the author of 13 award-winning books, including her national best-selling memoir, The Good Good Pig. Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,017 reviews
Profile Image for Bethany Johnsen.
42 reviews45 followers
May 9, 2015
I'm kind of "eh" on this book. It bills itself as a "surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness," I guess because it shares a few fun facts about octopus neurology (e.g. THEY HAVE NEURONS IN THEIR ARMS!) and references a few philosophers of mind (e.g. Thomas Nagel) in passing. Maybe it's the former philosophy major in me, but IMHO saying "Hmm, I REALLY wonder what it would be like to be an octopus! Can we even know?" does not qualify as an exploration into the wonders of consciousness. (Also, the answer is NO. Very obviously no.)

I would have been less bothered by philosophical shortcomings if there was more actual information about octopuses. Many of the anecdotes are not that surprising to someone who knows anything about octopuses to begin with. There's something to be learned for sure, but most of the book is not educating you about octopuses. It's mostly a memoir of the author hanging out at an aquarium getting to touch octopuses, which is super cool, and also learning to scuba dive and swim with them. It wasn't that exciting just to read about it. The first chapter of this book was originally an article that went viral, and it seems like the amount of content here is more suitable for something article-length. As an octopus lover your time might be better spent watching a documentary or reading a different book.

Also, as an animal lover, I would have appreciated more consideration of the ethics of keeping wild sea creatures in tanks. The only mention of this occurs when Montgomery describes how a certain individual who catches wild octopuses for aquariums has no regrets because displaying octopuses to the public is necessary for people to care about their preservation in the wild. We don't actually get any evidence that this is true, and it seemed to me like a flip way to dismiss the very real concerns that I had when I learned about a young, growing octopus being kept in a dark 50-gallon tank with no mental stimulation, all because an older display octopus didn't die as early as anticipated. These are very intelligent animals (the main takeaway of the book)---they need stimulation! They hunt and explore in the ocean all day. It seems downright abusive. Other bad things happen to octopuses in the book that are unsettling, and left me wondering about the intelligence of our own species.
Profile Image for Wil Wheaton.
Author 98 books196k followers
March 28, 2017
It's such a beautiful book, such an incredible story. I already loved octopuses, but this book deepened and strengthened my love for them, and all cephalopods. It's an easy read, and by the time you're finished, you'll be asking yourself questions about consciousness, inter-species communication, and maybe even feeling a little more of a bond with the fishes who live in your aquarium ... I know that I did.
February 8, 2017
I had previously read Journey of the Pink Dolphins: An Amazon Quest by this author and had to give it up because it contained very little fact, an awful lot of conjecture and far too much about Sy Montgomery who obviously finds the preoccupations of her spiritual soul far more fascinating than I do. So this time, wanting to read about octopuses I thought I would listen to the book. It was worse!

This is because the author read it herself and it's purpleness, it's fruitiness was increased by her emphasis on meaningless similes, one after the other. Her favourite word is, 'like' as in the egg trails of the octopus are like a wedding veil but more beautiful than any.... Simile on the next line too, about gossamer cobwebs, diamond air bubbles and golden... AFAIR. Why write one when two can fill the space?

After several boring chapters on the author learning to scuba dive along with descriptions of her tutors and friends including their neurological problems how they had come about their nicknames and lots of similes, I finally got to this all in two paragraphs.

"my air rising in silver bubbles like a song of praise.... "

"nurse sharks peaceful as a prayer"

"the fish wheel in unison like birds in the sky"

"I feel elation cresting into ecstasy"

"Like in a dream the impossible unfolds before me and yet I accept it unquestioningly"

and, "Beneath the water I find myself in an altered state of consciousness with a focus and range and clarity of perception that are dramatically changed. Is this what Kali and Octavia [her two favourite octopuses) feel like all the time? The Ocean for me is what LSD is to Timothy Leary..."

That's why I said finally. DNF.

Not enough science, too much conjecture, I don't really believe that octopuses tease people for a joke and get their own back on people and then float with smirking expressions she has imagined on their imaginary faces.

Remind me never to read another Sy Montgomery book.

2.5 stars rounded down. One and a half stars because I did learn something about the individuality of octopuses which I would really like to know more of and an extra star because she is very good friends with the brilliant anthropologist and ethologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas who is one of my very favourite authors.

Profile Image for Jessica.
131 reviews8 followers
October 22, 2015
The only “surprising” thing about this “exploration into the wonder of consciousness” is that the author so thoroughly convinces us of Octopuses beauty, intelligence and individual personalities yet sees no conflict with keeping them captive, often in cruel conditions. Most of the Octopuses intimately investigated in the book were wild caught and are now captive in public aquariums, namely the New England Aquarium in Boston. They were not rescued due to an injury nor born in captivity and imprinted making a return to the wild difficult. These were all caught and sold for the purpose of being publicly displayed. Montgomery takes an obscene amount of pleasure in her “wonderful Wednesday” visits to the NEAQ, as if her entertainment was the octopus's purpose. The most horrible thing recounted in the book is an octopus that due to space constraints has to live for 8 months in a tiny pickle barrel with no stimuli beyond the humans bothering her. She is visibly distressed and tries to escape every time the lid is lifted. How was the author and everyone okay with this? It was terrible to read. Finally, the writing was sappy and self-absorbed. While I did learn a lot of interesting things about Cephalopod anatomy, biology and behavior, those bits of knowledge only strengthened my distaste for the questionable ethics of the author and the book. Shame on the National Book Award judges nominating this book for the non-fiction award.
Profile Image for JanB .
1,129 reviews2,291 followers
February 27, 2022
Last year, one of my favorite tv programs was the documentary, My Octopus Teacher. The filmmaker spent a year diving the ocean and following an octopus around, eventually forming a bond with her as the octopus recognized and began interacting with him. It was touching and profoundly moving to watch their relationship grow. The filmmaker respected the octopus’s natural environment as she invited him into her world.

In this book we have octopuses in captivity and I had mixed feelings. I have a soft heart and I don’t pretend to know what is best for an octopus, but reading about them in small barrels for public viewing disturbed me. Who knows, maybe they were happy but since they tried to escape – an octopus is a Houdini of the Deep – made me wonder if they were content and happy or if it would be best if we humans let them be and studied them in their own habitat.

It is clear octopuses are intelligent beings with distinct unique personalities. They solve problems, complete mazes, complete tasks to get food rewards, and are mischievous. In captivity they grow bored unless given toys to provide stimulation. They use tools to solve problems and, for protection, they block the entrance to their ocean dens with rocks or whatever they can find. They can recognize people and, just as humans do, show a preference for some and a dislike for others. They are the chameleons of the sea, changing color and skin texture in an instant to blend into their surroundings. They have three hearts, and a mini-brain in each of their arms, which can act independent of one another.

They are amazing and it’s hard to not fall a little bit in love with them. It is not surprising that humans can forge a bond with such intelligent unique creatures, despite the fact they are the opposite of soft and cuddly. Sadly, the friendship is destined to be a short-lived one, as they live only a few short years. Some develop dementia toward the end, which was heartbreaking to read about, as it is similar to dementia in humans.

However, while I loved learning more about octopuses, of less interest to me were the personal musings of the author and her tendency to anthropomorphize them, which sometimes bordered on the ridiculous. At one point the author compared Kali, an octopus who died when she escaped her barrel in the middle of the night, and said she had a happy last day and died like a great explorer “like the astronauts who died blasting off in the Challenger…”. Yes, she really did say that and I hope I’m not the only one who finds it offensive.

Or, you know, maybe as a highly intelligent sea creature Kali wanted out of her small drum at the aquarium? Still, the aquarium wasted no time in acquiring a new octopus and putting it in the same drum poor Kali died escaping. Because the octopus drew visitors.

While I loved learning more about octopuses, the author’s attempt to muse philosophical fell flat and I didn’t particularly care that a portion of the book was more memoir than about octopuses. But I grew to care about Athena, Octavia, Kali, Karma, with their personality quirks, and couldn’t help but wonder if we can and should do better by them than putting them on display in small habitats.

This was a buddy read with Marialyce, do check out her review to read her thoughts!

• To be fair, the afterward detailed how the aquarium built a new larger habitat for the octopus
• The author narrated the audiobook and was too perky for my tastes so I switched to print.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
696 reviews3,264 followers
December 5, 2017
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

Although occasionally repetitive, The Soul of an Octopus is a tearful, informative, and memorable love note to octopuses - those strange yet wondrous creatures, intelligent and brimming with personality, that captivate and terrify in equal measure.
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,407 reviews9,542 followers
March 11, 2017
I had to read this book today because it was due back on Overdrive, so this is going to be a short review until I get my OWN paperback copy.

This book made me cry!!! The creatures and the people both had me torn up at times.

I'm a wildlife lover and activist so I try to branch out into different books on creatures I know nothing about. I was worried this was going to be another textbook style read and I don't like those. This is about a woman (the author) who gets to study octopuses <--- (not octopi) at The New England Aquarium. I never even thought an octopus could have such a wonderful memory, could play, could hug you in their own way or shoot water in your face if they didn't like you or wanted to play. There are so many other things I learned.

The people in the book were amazing too. I don't agree with everything but these were people that did the best they could for their animals and family members. There is even a little girl in the book who is helped by the Octopuses with her Autism and her suicide attempt.

This was just a wonderful book and I will do a more in depth review, hopefully with some of their pictures and some stories.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,697 reviews14.1k followers
August 3, 2016
3.5 Though simply written I found this book to be both informative and delightful. I knew nothing about the octopus except for pictures in National Geographic, so this was all new to me. So surprising to learn how clever these creatures are, the variations in size, from six inches with 23 inch tentacles to the giants of the sea. How they use these tentacles like conveyors belts to feed, how they change colors based on mood, how they can show displeasure. How clever they are, escape artists, can use misdirection, and so much more.

The author comes to personally relate with three different types of this species and grows to care about them all. Other sea life are also mentioned as are the people who work with them. Such a unique job, not sure it would be but I found the descriptions fascinating. Actually I found everything in this book fascinating. Such clever creatures, who knew?

Profile Image for María.
144 reviews3,066 followers
November 8, 2018
Qué clase de magia tiene la autora para que un tema que -en principio- no me interesaba nada, me acabe pareciendo fascinante. He pasado de "los pulpos me dan igual" a "quiero conocer pulpos y ser su amiga y quizás reencarnarme en uno". QUÉ CLASE DE MAGIA ES ESTA.
Profile Image for Dov Zeller.
Author 2 books104 followers
April 27, 2016
It was interesting reading other GR reviews about this book. Some folks complained it wasn't sciency enough, or that it claims to do things that it doesn't, finally, do.

I can understand folks' frustration with Montgomery's approach. For people looking for a hard-core science book, maybe this isn't the one. Montgomery is essentially telling the story of her journey of studying octopuses, which can't stop at the octopus, because they are part of a larger world. I think that's some of the message here. One cannot study an octopus in a vacuum (though an octopus may be able to occupy one with dazzling dexterity). There are a lot of things Montgomery learns and shares in this book while learning about the octopus, and they may seem extraneous, but I don't think they are.

Montgomery's first visit with an octopus at an aquarium excites her imagination. She learns that octopuses can be dangerous, but also that their curiosity and need for connection are not so unlike our own. Of course, the octopus can learn a lot about us by tasting our skin with their tentacles. We don't do that. Though I think sometimes we can use our senses to determine if someone is a serious coffee drinker or pack a day smoker. We just might not draw away from such a person as the octopus does after tasting of the not so delectable flavor.

Right away, according to the narrative, Montgomery experiences a sense affection and wonder for the octopus, and she tells us all about the octopuses she gets to know in captivity, and also there is a cast of human characters she gets to know while getting to know the octopuses. So, this book is about a person learning about octopuses, and a person spending time at an aquarium and getting to know other people who work there. Furthermore Montgomery decides to learn to scuba dive because she wants to see octopuses who aren't in captivity.

This is a book that wanders around a bit, and doesn't stay as zoomed in on science and octopuses per say, but I found it to be gripping and delightful. I agree with some reviewers that it is hard to read about animals being captured and kept in captivity. It is a practice I also dislike. But it would be happening whether or not Montgomery writes this book so I guess I'd like to and learn what I can.

The question of octopus consciousness doesn't of course get answered in here. Montgomery thinks they have souls. (Maybe even plural, given that each tentacle is a bit of creature of their own.) I think the concept of the soul is one that tries to separate planetary creatures into those whose lives are worth something and those whose lives are expendable. So, I prefer to ask different questions and leave the soul out of most things unless I'm feeling poetic. But I appreciate that Montgomery looks at her octopus friends as individuals with their own personalities, experiences, desires, etc. I don't think making a personal narrative about her emotional and social experiences with octopuses makes it less scientific. It just makes it more nuanced and rich.

The book is broken up into parts names after octopuses kept at the aquarium. There is Octavia, Kali, Karma. (I can't remember if there were other sections. Book is back at the library.) We get to see octopuses interact with each other, with people, with their environments. We see a mother lay and tend her unfertilized eggs, we see some octopuses die and some get released back into the ocean so that they can enjoy the end of their lives in their home-habitat.

We see octopuses push people away, pull them closer, tease people, lash out, weaken, die, expand and thrive. Octopuses change shape, change color, express pleasure and loneliness and longing.

And we see a community of people become more attuned to their environments and more sensitive to the lives of seemingly incomprehensible others, simply by connecting with the octopus. Being read (and tasted) by the octopus seems to bring people a sense of calm and peace. People who spend time with octopuses seem to believe in the intensity of intelligence of other beings, which can be a shock to them, particularly as relates to a creature which has probably not been thought of until recently as having the personality and intelligence more along the lines of mammals than cephalopods.

Of course, many people still like to believe humans are the only intelligent animal. Which is proof in itself that human intelligence can be a truly paradoxical pair of words. It makes sense that this book celebrates our relationships with each other, and with the many other intelligent beings in our midst, particularly, the octopus. I can only hope a heightened awareness of our interconnectivity might bring us to our senses some day.

Here are some quotes.


“I smell fish stress.” The scent is subtle—I cannot smell it at all—but the low-tide odor Scott detects, he explained at the time, is that of heat-shock proteins. These are intracellular proteins that were first discovered to be released, in both plants and animals, in response to heat, and are now known to be associated with other stresses as well. (73)


It might be more appealing to describe octopuses as slippery. But a banana peel is slippery; slime is a very specialized and essential substance, and there’s no denying that octopuses have slime in spades. Almost everyone who lives in the water does. ‘More of the ocean’s residents use, deploy, or are made up of slime than I ever expected,’ marine scientist Ellen Prager observes. ‘The undersea world is a seriously slimy place.’ Slime helps sea animals reduce drag while moving through the water, capture and eat food, keep their skin healthy, escape predators, protect their eggs. Tube worms like Bill’s feather dusters secrete slime to build a leathery tube, like a flower stalk, to protect their bodies and keep them attached to a rock or coral. For some fishes—Scott’s Amazon discus and cichlids among them—slime is the piscine equivalent of mother’s milk. The babies actually feed off the parents’ nutritious slime coat, an activity called ‘glancing.’ The brightly colored mandarin fish exudes bad-tasting slime to deflect its enemies; the deep-sea vampire squid, an octopus relative, produces glowing slime to startle predators. Bermuda fire worms signal with luminous slime to attract mates like fireflies flashing on a summer night. The female fire worms glow to attract the mass; the males then flash, after which the two please eggs and sperm in tandem.

“Kali’s and Octavia’s slime isn’t bad," I told Jody. "Anyway, they’re way less slimy than a hagfish."

A creature of the ocean bottom, a hagfish grows to about 17 inches long, and yet, in mere minutes, it can fill seven buckets with slime—so much slime it can slip from almost any predator’s grip. The hagfish would be in danger of suffocating on its own mucous, except it has learned, like a person with a cold, to blow it out its nose. But sometimes it produces too much slime for even a hagfish… (75)


From building shelters to shooting ink to changing color, the vulnerable octopus must be ready to outwit dozens of species of animals, some of which it pursues, others it must escape. How do you plan fro so many possibilities? Doing so demands, to some degree, anticipating the actions—in other words, imagining the minds—of other individuals

The ability to ascribe thoughts to others, thoughts that might differ from out own, is a sophisticated cognitive skill, known as ‘theory of mind.’ Once it was thought to be unique to humans. In typical children, theory of mind is believed to emerge around age three or four. The classic experiment goes like this: A toddler views a video of a girl who leaves a box of candy behind in her room. While she’s gone, an adult replaces the candy in the box with pencils. Now the child comes back to open up her box again. The experimenter asks the tot, what does the little girl expect to find in the box? The toddler will say: pencils. Only an older child will understand that the little girl would expect to find candy, even though that’s not what’s really there.

Theory of mind is considered an important component of consciousness, because it implies self-awareness. (83)

Of course, there are many other examples. The birds of prey with whom falconers hunt look to the falconer, or to her dogs, to flush game. African honey badgers follow certain birds (known as honey guides) to find bees’ nests. Both parties seem to realize that when badgers open up the nests to eat the honey, the birds can then feast on the bee larvae. (85)


It’s even possible that the octopuses have some shy arms and some bold arms. University of Vienna researcher Ruth Byrne reported that her captive octopuses always choose a favorite arm to explore new objects or mazes—even though all of their limbs are equally dexterous…Her team counted the octopuses using only forty-nine different combinations of one, two or three arms for manipulating objects, when, according to her calculations, 448 combinations were actually possible…(160)

“Octopus arms really are like separate creatures,” Scott agrees. Not only can they grow new arms when needed, there is evidence that, on occasion, an octopus chooses to detach its won arm, even in the absence of a predator….Is this like what happens when Siamese twins fight? (161)
Profile Image for Scott.
290 reviews295 followers
February 28, 2017
Octopuses get a bum rap in popular culture. They've starred in numerous books and films, pulling sailors (and sometimes ships) into briny graves, lurking about in holes waiting to ambush unsuspecting divers and even attacking submarines. They've long been a shorthand for 'monster' - there's a reason Cthulhu has an octopus for a head - but these sensitive, smart beasties have been unfairly maligned.

Sy Montgomery's book, The Soul of an Octopus is an antidote to these negative perceptions, and does an excellent job of showing how amazing and intriguing Octopuses are, and the relationships that humans can have with them. Beyond that, however, this book didn't live up to my expectations.

Have you ever watched a race where a runner lunges off the starting line, smashes world records for the first fifty meters then stumbles, trips and face-plants into a twisted heap before the halfway mark?

That’s a little how this book felt for me.

The first hundred pages of The Soul of an Octopus are amazing. While reading the first few chapters I was regaling friends with scintillating Octopus facts- their multiple hearts, the way their neurons are distributed throughout their limbs, seemingly giving each arm a mind of its own, the way they can taste with their suckers, and their impressive, curious intelligence. It was a torrent of engaging and fascinating facts, told with an interesting and empathetic voice.

I learned a lot (I’d always thought the plural of octopus was ‘octopi’ – how wrong I was…) and my existing interest in cephalopods (Octopuses, cuttlefish and the like) was fired way up. I was watching octopus videos online, thinking about visiting the local aquarium, and talking to my partner about making a snorkeling trip to a nearby pier known for its sealife - Montgomery had turned me into an octopus fanboy.

And then… the content kind of dried up. As the book goes on less and less interesting octopus related information is presented. The discussion of scientific studies drops off, and the book mainly becomes a tale of the author’s friendship with several Octopuses in the Boston aquarium. While these relationships are interesting, it is the earlier section of the book, which blends the author’s experiences in with informative and compelling revelations about Octopus anatomy and behavior that gets the balance right.

In the later sections I found myself becoming bored, that most fatal of feelings for a reader, and I felt as though I was reading a memoir, rather than an exploration of ideas and science. I generally dig personal-journey-through-a-scientific/historical/political-minefield style books, where the author inserts themselves in the story, such as John Safran's Murder in Mississippi. I love the way a well-written personal story can sneak facts, debates, arguments and other tasty morsels into a book in ways that can trick my lazy brain into learning without even realizing it. Unfortunately, by about two-thirds in Montgomery's story starts to feel repetitive, and overall it lacks the depth of content I look for in books of this type.

After reading Montgomery's book I discovered that its beginnings are to be found in an article that the author wrote, an article that later became the first sections of this larger work. Considering how interesting the first section of The Soul of an Octopus is I can see how it would make a great article, and I can heartily recommend reading perhaps the first hundred pages. Beyond that point there was little to engage me, although if you like Montgomery's writing voice you may find her personal connection with several aquarium octopuses to be enough to sustain your interest.

This isn’t a bad book, it just isn’t what it could have been. Its starts out very strongly, but runs out of puff a fair way from the finish line.
Profile Image for Barbara.
268 reviews205 followers
February 20, 2022
'Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings but beings gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
Henry Beston - American naturalist and writer

I love animals; fiction and nonfiction stories about various species interest me. But octopuses? Those many tentacled slimy underwater creatures would never have fascinated me enough to read a book devoted to them. It took a book club selection to force me, twist my arm. Ah, the beauty of a book club. I am now a convert, an octopus zealot. Do not engage me in conversation unless you want to be bombarded with endlessly surprising octopus facts.

There has long been an effort to minimize the significance of emotions and intelligence in other species. The need to feel superior seems to be in our nature. Valuable research has been withheld for fear of ridicule. Pet owners can attest to the emotional and intellectual capacity of their dog, cat, bird.
But a mollusk? Who knew? These "intelligent aliens" are personable, playful and extremely clever. Rather than going on with accolades and praiseful adjectives, I have selected a number of facts I found mind boggling.

The Seattle Aquarium has an annual Octopus Blind Date on Valentine's Day. Attracting more than double the average daily attendance, a male octopus is released into a female's tank. The expectant crowd watches in hope of seeing a mating. (Is this a form of voyeurism?)

The Pacific octopus can weigh as much as 110 lbs. and can expand to 16 feet. They can lift 100 lbs. per arm.

One female successfully mated with the same male 12 times. On the 13th attempt, she ate him. (Octopus birth control?)

Fish are placed on the end sucker of any arm. Instead of bending its arm and popping the food into their mouth, the octopus passes the fish sucker by sucker until in reaches the mouth. Scientist believe that since each sucker can taste and feel, the octopus is savoring its meal. (They would never be accused of eating like a pig.)

An octopus personality test has been developed which is so well respected it is cited by cognitive neuroscientists and the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness and signed by many, including Stephen Hawking.

The octopus cyan is one of the best camouflaged octopuses in the world. In Hawaii they often carry a coconut shell to use as a hut-like shelter when there are no crevices to hide in. (You never know what you'll find under a coconut shell.)

In captivity they are often bored which can lead to octopus mischief. Toys have been specifically developed for their high level of intelligence. A series of 3 plexiglass cubes with various latches, bolts, sliding panels, and lids was designed. An octopus can open all locks in 3 to 4 minutes. There is even an octopus enrichment handbook.

Their eyes have no blind spot. These wide-angle eyes have a panoramic view and each eye can swirl independently. New evidence indicate they can see with their skin as well. (Maybe they wrote the lyrics for Every Breath You Take.)

Kali, a beloved 21 lb. octopus, died when she escaped from her tank through a 2 1/2 in. gap which had been stuffed with a bristly screening material not liked by the species. (Curiosity kills more than cats.)

While I am not sending my money in for the 2022 Octopus Symposium Workshop, I am humbled by what I have learned. You may not be convinced to read this book, but I do recommend watching the Netflix documentary entitled "My Octopus Teacher". You may begin expounding octopus facts too.

Profile Image for Jailyn.
163 reviews3 followers
May 22, 2015
I have a love hate relationship with this book. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by the author and she did a great job of narrating. The descriptions of the octupuses were beautiful and the discussions about their habits, emotions, and intelligence were very interesting.

But (and you knew this was coming), I don't think aquariums should catch or pay to catch animals from the wild for their exhibits. Even though the people in the book cared about their charges, in reading you could see how the conditions for the animals was sometimes cruel (Kali in particular).

I know accidents and deaths can happen, but it seemed like the aquarium went through its animals relentlessly. Why can't they be enjoyed by scuba divers or in electronic exhibits rather than in person? If these creatures are so intelligent (and I have no doubt they are), why do we abduct them and keep them in a life of captivity?

The mindset is alien to me, just as my mindset is probably alien to them.

The book was beautiful, but oh so sad for someone who believes animals should have the right to their freedom and their own lives.
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,503 reviews2,315 followers
September 23, 2018
Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and narrated by the author, is such a delightful book that warmed my heart and I didn't want it to end. I felt so entranced by the love of the sea life, especially these precious octopuses, that I felt I knew them. Warning, make sure you have tissue handy for happy times and grieving moments. This book was a true blessing! I felt so in touch with life, the universe, and my own personal thoughts after listening to this. It was a soothing balm for the soul!
Often I cringe when I know the author is going to do the narration but her voice is so nice and she told it with her own emotions. Touching. This book is for anyone who loves animals or those that don't. Maybe they will when they finish.
I had mixed feelings going into it about getting wild octopuses for zoos and Aquariums but I think I understand better now. I did learn that more than one octopus is NOT called octopi! Lol!
Profile Image for Helen.
184 reviews6 followers
August 7, 2015
*Spoiler alert of epic proportions*

The subtitle of Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness clearly states Montgomery’s purpose. And she starts her exploration off well enough. She’s meeting Athena, the New England Aquarium’s 40 pound, two and a half year old, octopus for the first time. Montgomery is charmed. I’m charmed. For “those who work with octopuses report seeing things that, according to the way we’ve learned the world normally works, should not be happening.” Montgomery proceeds to eloquently make her case; octopuses are intelligent, emotional beings with distinct personalities and memory.

So imagine my surprise, no my dismay, when she reveals that “in [her] quest to get to know an octopus better, [she] had been looking into acquiring one of [her] own.” Yes, Montgomery feels a need to possess an animal that she herself, in the very title of her own book, acknowledges possesses a soul. She goes on to say,“… whether you’re a person or a monkey, a bird or a turtle, an octopus or a clam, the physiological changes that accompany our deepest-felt emotions appear to be the same. Even a brainless scallop’s little heart beats faster when the mollusk is approached by a predator, just like yours or mine would do were we to be accosted by a mugger.” Or captured in your ocean home by a strange creature, and transferred to a barren tank in that creature’s otherwise uninhabitable living room.

Fast-forward…Athena has died. Octopuses, we know from chapter one “live fast and die young. Giant Pacific octopuses are probably among the longest-lived of the species, and they usually live only about three or four years.” Thus, the aquarium is now home to Octavia, who is nearing the end of her life, and Kali, Octavia’s replacement who lives in a dark, 50 gallon barrel. The flower pot Montgomery had given her to hide in has been removed from her barrel for lack of space.

At which point Montgomery decides she needs to experience the ocean; would “love to be actually in the real ocean with them.” She wants to be in the very ocean home denied the same octopus she wants to be in the real ocean with. Huh.

Montgomery describes the ascent from her final dive: “I ascend with [Rob] slowly, like a dying soul reluctant to leave its body, and we watch the silver trail of our bubbles rising above us like shooting stars.” Is this how Kali felt on her final ocean ascent? Is this how Kali feels in her barrel right now?

Fast-forward again… after living in a dark 50 gallon barrel for roughly six months, Kali has finally been transferred to a new, temporary enclosure. The first night she escapes and dies; somewhat reminiscent of an only slightly less tragic escape scene at the end of Finding Nemo. Of the incident Montgomery and aquarium staff says:

"Kali was extremely lucky to have lived as long as she did. Most octopuses die as paralarvae. Only two in 100,000 hatchlings survive to sexual maturity – otherwise the sea would be overrun with octopuses. “And at least we know she had a good last day.” I said. “Yes,” said Wilson. “She had a day of freedom. And that she got out tells you a phenomenally inquisitive and intelligent creature wanted her freedom. We know, clearly, it must have taken a lot of effort to get out. A stupid animal wouldn’t do that.”
“She died like a great explorer,” I said. Like the astronauts who died blasting off in Challenger, or the brave men who perished in an attempt to find the source of the Nile, penetrate the Amazon, visit the poles, Kali had chosen to face unknown danger in the quest to widen the horizons of her world.
“Octopuses have their own intelligence that we can’t match,” Wilson said. “And hopefully we’ll learn from our mistakes. That’s the best we can do. After all,” he said, “we’re only human.”

I’m not convinced the comparison to astronauts and African explorers is valid. For those souls chose a life of adventure and Kali was not on a “quest to widen the horizons” of “her” world. She was on a quest to widen the horizons of an artificial world forced upon her. Nor am I convinced that Kali enjoyed one happy day. In Wilson’s own words, “…that she got out tells us…[she] wanted her freedom.” She didn’t get it.

Like Wilson, I too, hoped they would learn from their mistakes. So imagine my surprise when, eight days after Kali’s escape the aquarium has ordered another octopus off the internet. She will be named Karma. With no permanent tank for her, they put her in Kali’s dark prison barrel. Leaving me unclear as to what any of them have learned. Except that instead of planning ahead, and putting kindness before profit, when tragedy strikes we shrug our shoulders and claim we’re innocent…because we’re human.

I picked up The Soul of an Octopus because, ten years ago, I was utterly enamored with Mongtomery’s The Good Good Pig. My expectations were so high that the contrast between what I learned about the inner lives of octopuses, and the Stockholm Syndromesque relationships between they and their keepers became too disappointing, too enraging, and just too tiring. While I imagine Montgomery’s aim is to paint a portrait of herself and her aquarium colleagues as fighting the good conservation fight, she has unwittingly lumped her book in the same category of documentaries like Blackfish, and books like David Kirby’s Death at Sea World.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Yodamom.
1,982 reviews195 followers
May 12, 2015
When I started this I expected a scientific journal watered down for the non scientific reader. I did not expect it to be a personal journal with some scientific facts thrown in. I was looking for more science, more facts then offered. I was a bit miffed at the personal moments, her diving lessons, her ear troubles, relationships of companions. I wanted more information on the octopus and it fascinating life. Fascinating they are, and there is so much more that we still are far from understanding.
I did gain a new appreciation for the octopus. I was amazed by the interactions between the various beings and humans. They are so much more than taught in school. They are complex living creatures with different personalities, moods and fears. Understanding their types of communications comes from a lot of time spent interacting with them. They have gifts that we do not, which makes it hard for us to relate to them. That does not mean that they are brainless, unfeeling beings without conscious thoughts. The octopus has amazing abilities, their brain can have as many as 75 lobes compared to the human 4. It can see in panoramic views. There is new evidence that they may be able to see with their skin to get the perfect camouflage. This is just a small bit of their abilities, they are truly amazing.
There is some information on other species in the sea. Some fascinating facts and tidbits to wow you with the gifts of the sea.
I really enjoyed the book even with the slow journal sections that just didn't interest this reader. I did enjoy her focus of the emotional connections she saw. I may go find her Pig book and give it a go.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 35 books11.2k followers
January 18, 2019
Never thought I'd weep for an octopus. Not a spoiler: you will meet lots of octopuses in this moving memoir. (Also, among the myriad things I learned about this incredibly smart and empathetic animal is this: the plural is not octopi.) This is a lovely and wise book that will remind you of just how much we share with creatures that seem spectacularly foreign to us -- such as the octopus.
Profile Image for Amy (Other Amy).
452 reviews87 followers
April 7, 2016
The service is conducted in Tahitian, a language I don't understand. But I understand the power of worship, and the importance of contemplating mystery - whether in a church or diving a coral reef. The mystery that congregants seek here is no different, really, from the one I have sought in my interactions with Athena and Kali, Karma and Octavia. It is no different from the mystery we pursue in all our relationships, in all our deepest wonderings. We seek to fathom the soul. [...] But I am certain of one thing as I sit in my pew: If I have a soul-and I think I do-an octopus has a soul, too.

I have been writing this review in my head for a couple of weeks now, and it's time to be done with it, so here I go. Part of the difficulty in reviewing this particular book is that I review things for what they are, but this book doesn't know what it is. The subtitle suggests both popular science and philosophical tract, but it really isn't either of those. It fails spectacularly as journalism. The reader is left with a kind of memoir, a sort of 'my neat experiences with an aquarium' (focusing of course on that aquarium's octopi*), but even that is rather shallow. Looking back over the whole thing, this book was not what it wants to be or pretends to be, and as such I remain a disappointed reader. (However, book length treatments focusing mainly on the octopus are not particularly plentiful, so the book still has some value even with its many flaws.)

There is science in this book, yes (did you know an octopus has more neurons in its arms than its brain?), but it is more a collection of hodgepodge of facts (how about that they can taste with their skin?) strung together through the author's rambling (in fact, they may be able to see with their skin, but only maybe) stories about her adventures making friends at the aquarium (an octopus' eye has no blind spot, can detect polarized light, is panoramic instead of binocular, and can swivel independently, but sight is limited to about an 8 foot range), learning to scuba dive (the octopus is the chameleon of the sea, but much, much more finely tuned and capable than a chameleon), and above all her repeated stabs at a vague, semi-mystical notion of consciousness (cephalopods can disappear on a checkerboard and have done so in labs) which are unfortunately laced through with all manner of religious references the author does not really appear to understand (this camouflage thing is fantastic; look at this; the octopus starts at 1:50). There are no footnotes or endnotes (although there is the obligatory index and a nice bibliography), which makes it difficult to track down a lot of the science that is presented (they are strong enough to resist perhaps 100 times their body wait in pull, and for the big ones that may be almost 4,000 pounds) in the same wide-eyed fashion as the philosophy (I could go on like this all day, but I actually would like to finish this review, so I'll stop now).

The quote I pulled above gives a pretty good idea of the tone I'm talking about: The author attends a Protestant service held in a church that now occupies the site of a former temple to the octopus in Tahiti. Even though she doesn't speak the language, she happily assumes she understands enough to use the experience as her springboard into musings on the soul. (I have the advantage of having come from a Protestant tradition, and I can fairly say she is probably directly wrong as to the contents of the service.) Add to this the fact that the questions we ask give us the answers we get, and the author is determined to ask stupid questions. (Can we ever understand the octopus? Lady, I can't understand my family, friends, and neighbors. What on God's blue earth makes you think we can understand another species? It's like Hume never happened for this woman.)

Or she is determined to avoid asking the questions. The book give two fairly uncomfortable portrayals of these lovely (and, yes, very, very intelligent) animals in distress: Octavia is brought to the aquarium near adulthood due to Athena's sudden demise, and shows clear distress over her change in environment, while Kali is kept for an unexpectedly long time in a barrel behind the scenes as Octavia takes much longer than anticipated to die after egg laying; Kali also exhibits clear distress and boredom. A journalist would have been forced to ask some probing questions here about the ethics of these practices with wild animals who appear to be at least as smart as, say, the family dog. No such questioning arises. The author relates the situation, but she does not investigate the different sides of the argument. (She does later present the thoughts of an obtainer of octopi, who takes the animals from the wild for aquariums, and who does what he does because people must learn about them to protect them, but that is as far as it goes.) Given the obvious controversy here (and the traditional close relation between studies of an organism's level of consciousness and the ethical questions of how to relate to that organism accordingly), this refusal to dive in is especially disappointing.

As a memoir, this functions on about the same level of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know , another book that promised to explore the science but was ultimately bound to the idiosyncratic interpretations and ideas of its author. This is a decent enough read to get a passel of facts, but not the survey of the wonder of octopus intelligence the title seems to promise. I have moved on to The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins , which seems to be a more promising treatment of a similar subject, although not, unfortunately, of the wondrous octopus.


*I am aware (indeed this book immediately makes the reader aware) of the current pushback by grammar hounds against the marvelous word 'octopi' on the grounds that 'octopus' is a word of Greek origin, meaning you cannot have the Latin plural 'octopi' but must instead have either the regular English plural 'octopuses' or the Greek plural 'octopodes' (which is almost never heard outside of this debate and remains generally unrecognized). I am not generally one to join in choruses of 'Is that even a word?' and this round of that game is particularly offensive. It ignores the wonderful capability of the English language to make an inspired mistake, and the fact that this is an inspired mistake. It is better as a word, on almost every level, than the regular plural form, so unless my fellow English speakers suddenly accept that Greek business on a widespread basis, I'm keeping it. Grammar hounds who don't like that can take a long walk off a short pier. Maybe they will meet some octopi.

Reviewed 3/13/16.
2/29/16: So, 2016 continues to be the year of books I thought would be better. Review to come.
Profile Image for Marialyce (absltmom, yaya).
1,941 reviews722 followers
February 26, 2022
Reading about octopuses is certainly a step out of my norm, and while I did enjoy all I learned about this spectacular creature, I thought the book had more of a memoir feeling to it. It often times seemed to belabor the escapades of the author and emphasize her deering do. Granted she did seem to be ultra-amorous in her feelings toward octopuses bordering on the obsessive.

These creatures are certainly a fabulous addition to the kingdom of the sea, and the many points she and the people she worked with brought forward many interesting ideas as they tried to carry forth the idea that octopuses had a thinking process, Mrs. Montgomery called it their soul. We certainly know that these creatures have the ability to camouflage themselves, thus defending themselves against predators and the like. They mate, after which the male dies often consumed by the female, while the female often defends her eggs with her own life often not eating for weeks until she dies of starvation. Their arms do have what seem like minds of their own with suckers that appear to both sense and feel the person or creature they come in contact with. They are even intelligent enough to build a defense around themselves with rocks. What Montgomery and her associates allege are sure proof of their intelligence, some would say that these tasks are more instinctual.

Montgomery came in contact with quite a few octopuses, each of which had some endearing names, like Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. Based primarily at the New England Aquarium, Montgomery also traveled to Gulf of Mexico and Polynesia. She was not a paid worker but a volunteer who developed an overwhelming affinity for the octopuses. She and the people of the aquarium gave them what some might feel were human characteristics. Some were friendly, some were playful, while some seemed to be a bit aggressive. Montgomery and associates would stick their hands into the frigid water and have the octopus wrap its tentacles around their arms something that gave the people pleasure it seemed (although that wouldn't be me!).

The book read more like a memoir and as in a lot of books of this genre, it seemed self-aggrandizing. I truly enjoyed the parts where the author concentrated on the qualities, she thought she perceived in the octopuses, but did not enjoy the long passages where she went on about herself. I would have enjoyed more research into these magnificent creatures and less self-praise.

Jan and I both enjoyed learning about the various types of octopuses, species that number into about three hundred different kinds. Perhaps it was the writing which did get tedious and dull after a while and made us hope for a quick ending to this tale.

The one thing that kept preying on my mind was the fact that these creatures were kept in captivity. The book mentions how they loved to escape and would squeeze through a tiny opening. I wondered if perhaps it was their way of wanting to return to their natural environment. Possessing three hearts and some weighing up to twenty-two pounds, it cannot be denied that octopuses are fascinating creatures that can even regrow a lost arm. Some scientists have postured that an octopus is as smart as a house cat. I do feel that it would be better to leave these animals alone. They are not endangered and it hurt my heart to read of their captivity.

All in all, it was fine learning about this creatures, but was disappointing on many levels.
Profile Image for Lisa.
598 reviews40 followers
March 23, 2015
This was a lovely book—both fascinating and deeply kind, with a lot to interest a broad swath of readers. The science is accessible without being dumb, and at the same time Montgomery brings the octopuses (NOT octopi!) and their personalities (yes, they have 'em) really vividly to life. Plus I love reading about any interest that attracts the oddballs among us, and octopuses definitely seem to fall into that category—I guess I can count myself among those oddballs now. Thus ends any pulpo consumption for me ever again, and no big loss.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews288 followers
September 26, 2016
A Giant Pacific Octopus

No still photograph can possibly capture the weird, other-worldly grace of these creatures, so here is a video:

Do octopuses have souls? I remain agnostic on the subject of octopus souls but they most certainly have brains. They use tools and solve puzzles. They seem to play. They recognize and react to different humans--both by tasting them with their suckers, but also by seeing them with their remarkable eyes. Most of all, octopuses have personalities, the octopuses we meet in Sy Montgomery's wonderful book are distinct and rather lovable individuals. No one who has ever had a dog or cat will be surprised that animals have personalities, but we are talking about a mollusc a creature like a clam or oyster!

Octopuses have very strange brains. While the human brain has four different lobes each associated with different functions. "An octopus brain...has as many as 50 to 75 different lobes. And most of an octopus's neurons aren't even in the brain but are in the arms." Octopuses are adapted to extreme multi-tasking--all those arms can act independently and the arms seem to be able to both taste and see.

Octopuses are all predators and while the ones Montgomery describes seem gentle enough she is warned never to let the tentacles near her face since they could easily take out a human eye. Their interest in us may not be entirely pacific. One octopus had a 'thing' for people in wheelchairs or using canes. Another was particularly interested in watching small children. Often captive land predators like tigers show such preferences too. Do they recognize easy prey? The thought makes this picture somewhat sinister....

Since Octopuses have no bones they are able to squeeze themselves through tiny holes and they are amazing escape artists. I have to admit this video of an octopus crawling off the deck of a ship and back to water creeped me out big time. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yHIs...

Sy Montgomery loves them, though, and has what is to my mind a weird fondness for having her arms wrapped up in octopus tentacles--à chacun son goût. And speaking of taste, I suspect that anyone who reads this book will think twice before eating octopus or for that matter swallowing a raw oyster.

Montgomery's love of octopuses was so intense that it even got to me. I didn't think I could tear-up reading about the death of an octopus but these eight armed molluscs have so much personality and alien intelligence they seem rather like ET in the movie. Unfortunately there are rather a lot of octopus deaths in the book since they only live about 3 or 4 years.

Part of the pleasure of this book for me is getting a behind the scenes look at one of the most wondrous places in Boston, the New England Aquarium. Montgomery takes time out from the octopuses to describe many of the thousands of fish, birds and other animals at the aquarium. My favorite is Myrtle, a 350 pound green sea turtle, about 80 years old, who dominates even the sharks, stealing squid right out of their toothy mouths.

Right now there is a special exhibit on at the NEAQ of octopuses, squid and other tentacled creatures. I can hardly wait for my next day off!

UPDATE: Spotted the two New England Aquarium Giant Pacific octopuses, Sy and Anna. Sy was in the front tank reaching out with thin tentacles to feel (?) taste (?) see (?) a spiny sea urchin. Amazingly the urchin was also reaching out, waving and stretching its tube feet to meet Sy's tentacles.

They explored each other very delicately and deliberately for some minutes. What were they sensing? Is this Friend or Foe? Dinner or Danger?

Anna was in the back tank, pale grey, very quiet and hard to see. A volunteer told me she has laid infertile eggs and is guarding them. Readers of the Soul of An Octopus will know that "But with octopuses you never know." And there we stood in communion--two humans, minds and feelings briefly joined--as an octopus watched.
July 13, 2021
4 ☆
A lion is a mammal like us; an octopus is put together completely differently, with three hearts, a brain that wraps around its throat, and a covering of slime instead of hair. Even their blood is a different color from ours; it’s blue, because copper, not iron, carries its oxygen.

Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart.

Is it any wonder that octopus-like creatures have long starred as monsters of western stories from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Disney's Ursula to the fearsome Kraken in Scandinavian folklore?

In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery detailed her close encounters with four giant Pacific octopuses: Athena, Octavia, Kali, and Karma. Through her interactions- observing, feeding, and touching - with them, Montgomery learned about these large invertebrates and pondered their realities.
“Just about every animal,” Scott says—not just mammals and birds—“can learn, recognize individuals, and respond to empathy.” Once you find the right way to work with an animal, be it an octopus or an anaconda, together, you can accomplish what even Saint Francis might have considered a miracle."

The bliss of stroking an octopus’s head is difficult to convey to most people, even to animal lovers.

The giant Pacific octopus is truly something alien to us with our rigid skeletal structure and central consciousness. But the aquarium keepers were adamant about the different personalities of their octopuses and that they in turn formed likes and dislikes for specific humans. The octopus can "taste" via skin contact so during petting sessions, the octopus could sense a person's emotional state from their hormones and make distinctions among people. That is presuming people weren't freaked out by the cephalopod's 1,600 suckers, each with its own set of nerves that enabled fine motor skills, and in its totality created an animal of tremendous strength who could easily overwhelm a single human.

Scientists have advanced quite a bit in their knowledge during the 21st century. One of the most mind-boggling revelation to me is just how much agency and independence reside with each of the octopus' tentacles. And as Montgomery immersed herself further into the world of these mysterious cephalopods, she wondered and concluded that indeed octopuses have souls.
But what is the soul? Some say it is the self, the “I” that inhabits the body; without the soul, the body is like a lightbulb with no electricity. But it is more than the engine of life, say others; it is what gives life meaning and purpose. Soul is the fingerprint of God.

The Soul of an Octopus is essentially Montgomery's love letter to octopuses. It is a featured BOTM with the Non Fiction Book Club. I hadn't originally planned on reading it but I then would have missed out on a delightful experience. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Montgomery whose emotions were palpable and occasionally veered into excessive sentimentality. The hardcover version contained 8 pages of full-color images.
Profile Image for Lisa See.
Author 36 books48k followers
October 21, 2015
I had read an op ed by the author, Sy Montgomery, and felt compelled to buy the book. Who know I would be so captivated?
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,869 reviews421 followers
February 17, 2019
Until I read ‘The Soul of an Octopus’, by Sy Montgomery, talented amateur scientist (journalist) octopuses were almost not ever in my thoughts in any way. As I have learned in reading this book, this was a serious deficiency in my education.

First of all, giant Pacific octopuses have been living near my home all my life in Seattle, a port city. I have walked and partied on Seattle’s beaches all of my life and ate seafood at restaurants with beachside tables on Seattle’s piers. The Seattle Aquarium has a few octopuses, and some of them are Youtube stars. Secondly, the Aquarium catches them in Elliot Bay, just off the pier where the Aquarium was built. Third, the local diving clubs see them all of the time, posting videos of them, including one video of baby octopuses hatching from eggs, while their dying mother waves them on. The babies are cute as buttons, literally, being the size of tiny pearl collar buttons. Mom octopuses die shortly after the babies begin hatching because the moms starve themselves on guard duty while the eggs grow after being laid.

: (

They have been under my feet all my life, so to speak. I learned to look up only after I married my husband, a small plane pilot. Did you know the most beautiful clouds are in Seattle, huge, puffy, beautiful? I should have also been looking down, and out across the water, which often was within walking distance of my rented apartments. I certainly have owned boats, and had boyfriends with boats. My only excuse is the water is very very cold. And maybe, I am thick in the head. Why did I think on most days the bays, lakes, rivers and ocean near me were only for getting a tan?

o _ O

Octopuses are, like, A-listers of the aquatic world. They are powerful, smart, alpha dogs, or maybe like real black-ops guys - a Navy Seal Team? Hehe. They have to be, since their bodies are like pudding with muscles. They hunt to eat, mostly crabs, but things like to hunt for them, too. But once they reach their full size, watch out. They have been caught on video killing sharks.

Yeah. Sharks, man.

Below is a link to a talk given by the author, posted on Youtube. She reads from the book, so, you don’t really have to read the book, I guess, if you want the condensed version. It is as interesting as the book is. However, the book goes into more detail about many of the employees and volunteers who work with octopuses at the Boston New England Aquarium. The book also describes how the author learned to scuba dive, and the observations she made of sea life.


As I read the ebook, I discovered more videos by clicking on the links provided by the author in the back of the book in the Selected Bibliography section. They are excellent! people can be so generous. As the author notes, octopuses can be generous, too. When they get to know a person (they recognize individual humans!), they allow people to pet them, at least the ones they like. They have preferences. If they don’t like you, you might get hosed. Yes, they are slimy, but. Wouldn’t you give a body part to pet an octopus? Plus, they are playful, moody, and are able to escape from almost anything - covered tank or barrel, tied up plastic bag, jar with a lid screwed on (there are videos showing octopuses can unscrew lids from inside the jar- if there is a minimum of a one- or two-inch gap anywhere - only their beak doesn’t squish small. Being adventurous, they have been discovered outside of their tanks laying on aquarium floors drying out, or having taken up residence in other nearby fish tanks, which had been full of fish, somehow escaping from their own tank. However, the octopus may now be all alone in its new tank it chose as a new home, and all of those expensive rare fish have mysteriously disappeared. An octopus that is maybe forty pounds can drown you, too, as they are way powerful. Their bite can kill you as they can inject you with a neurotoxin which is flesh-eating. It is a good thing they almost never bite the hands that feed them, eh? But what they enjoy is grabbing their caretakers’ hands, arms, pulling lightly (sometimes not so lightly) with their suckers ( maybe up to 1500 of them, each capable of individual manipulation!), tasting, smelling, feeling you - and maybe liking it. What they like about us, well. Their caretakers like to assume they like us for our loving natures, right? However, they get bored easily, and they like toys. Maybe we are a toy? Given their clever hunting skills including the ability to change their appearance into anything - fish, rocks, sandy floors, their ability to flash colors like a disco dance floor to attract us, their enormous strength, I suspect we are interesting toys to them. At best. Caretakers, keep petting and caressing those octopuses when you feed them! They then have a reason to keep YOU around...

The book also has an Index section and photographs. There never are enough photos! Of course, I am now a major fan of octopuses. They can kill sharks. Sharks. Holy shit.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,671 followers
January 17, 2020
"Soul is the fingerprint of God."
- Sy Montgomery


I love octopuses. Sy Montgomery loves octopuses. I would love to discover a logical expression that would allow me, however, to love Sy Montgomery's book on Octopuses. The dialogue was plastic and the book was just too mawkish and too, for me, focused on the human experiences with the octopuses and not enough on the SOUL or the OCTOPUS.

An octopus has 3 hearts, perhaps I just have none. Could be the case. Could also be true that I am not the target audience. This book seems oriented towards enthusiastic teenagers or aquarium volunteers (both of which, admittedly are generally fantastic). It just wasn't for me. Also, note to future writers about the ocean. Rob's rule: you can use wine-dark sea ONCE without acknowledging Homer, but if you use it multiple times, you gotta name drop the blind poet, son of the river Meles. If Soul of an Octopus wasn't so short, I would have removed an arm and tried to escape.

One of the positives of this book (there were several) was how its setting was largely the New England Aquarium. I recently visited this aquarium a year ago, after my son had his surgery at Boston Children's (very near the time this picture I borrowed from NEA was taken of Freya the giant Pacific octopus), so I guess I am a bit sentimental about somethings I guess and Boston's famous aquarium is not a bad choice for sentimentality.

I'd recommend Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness instead.
Profile Image for Cody.
304 reviews67 followers
December 15, 2017
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery is an entertaining, highly personal, and very informative look at the intelligence and consciousness of one of the worlds most fascinating animals. Thinking of intelligent creatures on our planet, it's quick to point to the ability of chimpanzees to learn sign language or German shepherds in policing and military environments to sniff out bombs, but an Octopus is an even more intriguing subject on the matter. Octopuses are invertebrates, but who thinks of a class of the animal kingdom that includes slugs and clams as having traits associated with intelligence? There's a bias there certainly, and as Montgomery explains, we certainly have much more to learn about our world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Covering four different Octopuses lives at the New England aquarium, Montgomery's book is quite touching and even tear jerking as she develops such personal relationships with all of them. It's amazing the level of consciousness these animals have, from their individuality to problem solving skills to recognizing the people they interact with. The almost taboo subject of animal consciousness quickly becomes the underlining theme here in relation not just to octopuses, but other creatures on both land and sea. Not too long ago biologists like Jane Goodall were hesitant to apply psychological traits associated with humanity to animals, and only just recently has the scientific community been able to really push forward these studies on various subjects in the animal kingdom. Montgomery provides such a passionate analysis that the reader should walk away with that very same passion and respect for these wonderful animals.
Profile Image for Claudia.
947 reviews524 followers
March 31, 2020
The title is somehow misleading: it is more of an exploration into the author’s feelings and her excitement when meeting an octopus. The very few scientific data could be easily found on Wikipedia and the writing style is, to put it mildly, childish. But then I read that the author wrote some children’s books also – aha, so there’s the explanation.

But on the other hand, it was a light and mostly ok read. Nothing new about octopodes* if you have seen a documentary or two about them, but I enjoyed reading about their encounters with the author and the personnel from Boston’s New England Aquarium (that’s where the author conducted this “study”).

There are also details about other residents from the Aquarium: Myrtle the turtle, the Sunflower starfish (I don’t recall the name, if it has one) and various other fish. There are a lot of details too about the stuff and volunteers working at the Aquarium; if I were them, I would have mind so many personal details to be used in the book. But that’s just me.

Bottom line is, if you like octopodes (and other ocean creatures) and want a relaxing reading in order not to stress your neurons too much, there you have it.

* :) Make your own choice :https://www.merriam-webster.com/words...
Profile Image for Lauri.
469 reviews8 followers
April 23, 2015
I loved this book. Actually, I've loved all the books I've read by Sy Montgomery. She writes beautifully, and she has an amazing ability to create a nonfiction book that is a real page turner. Through Sy's visits to the New England Aquarium and the Seattle Aquarium, and through her scuba adventures in the wild (which truly were adventurous), you'll learn a lot about octopuses (apparently, the plural is NOT octopi, as I had previously thought), and you'll enjoy every minute of it. Although octopuses are mollusks, more closely related to snails than to mammals, they are very smart and clearly have moods and personalities. Sy becomes very well acquainted with a few octopuses in particular, and her interactions with them are fascinating. The book raises questions about the meaning of intelligence, nurturing, interspecies relationships and play - obviously, these are very intelligent creatures, even though their brains and neural systems bear very little resemblance to our own. I will never look at an octopus the same way again.

I highly recommend this book and this author. She has a gift.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
695 reviews130 followers
November 19, 2020
Is it possible to weep for an octopus' death?

Sy Montgomery combines scientific inquiry with her own moving meditations on the purpose of life, the perception of time, and the possibilities of connection in this book. Her subject is the giant Pacific octopus, and she relates her intimate interactions with four of them, residents of the New England Aquarium in Boston. When she touches her first, an octopus named Athena, she is surprised. “...[H]er head is silky and softer than custard. Her skin is flecked with ruby and silver, a night sky reflected in the wine-dark sea. As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus....” (Location 104)

Montgomery's book is not a didactic scientific tome. Instead, she intersperses fascinating facts into a lyrical narrative of discovery. Octopuses have more neurons than a rat. The neurons are distributed throughout the tentacles. Motor control ranges from delicate exploration to a crushing grip. Each sucker can flex like a gentle kiss or pinch like a vice. The octopus smells and tastes through its skin.

Montgomery notices Athena looking at her face while tasting her arms. Should she allow Athena to taste her face? Bill Murphy, senior aquarist, responds with a decisive “No.” The suckers could easily pull her eye out.

An octopus named Octavia demonstrates remarkable camouflage abilities. Three layers of skin comprising three types of cells enable shifts to multiple colors, patterns and textures, a canvas of liquid iridescence.

This book is special, however, because Montgomery encounters so many examples of octopus personality: curiosity, memory, preferences, trust, playfulness, intelligence, and even deception. There is something tragic about an animal so like us in many ways having such a short lifespan — only 3-4 years. It lives a solitary life, hoarding its secrets. When born it is the size of a grain of rice. It grows, explores, learns, breeds and then, its life cycle completed, it becomes lethargic, senescent and dies. Montgomery's writing arouses a feeling of profound awe.

The parallel story Montgomery tells is of the dedicated staff that attends these creatures. Montgomery describes them with such vividness that you feel you know them enough to greet them on the street. In the outside world their interests and individuality make them anomalies; in the aquarium they are part of a tight empathetic family. The memories they share with these octopuses are stored like a string of precious pearls.

One interviewee likens the octopuses, caught from the wild, as ambassadors from their world to ours. It's an apt metaphor. Montgomery describes numerous occasions when adults as well as children are converted from uninvolved gawkers to sympathetic and curious admirers. The octopuses, in turn, seem curious about both the visitors and their environs, designed with painstaking attention to naturalism and security in mind. In addition, one of the most challenging tasks is designing puzzles to stave off octopus boredom. Would the octopus choose to give up its freedom to experience these unknown adventures? Of course, to even ask such a question is to lapse into anthropomorphism. Yet, I like to think that these octopuses live and die without regrets.

So, returning to my opening question, if we weep, it is perhaps not from grief over the octopus as much as grief over the unfathomable mystery of life for all of us.

NOTES: Just learned of an intriguing video playing on Netflix: https://www.freetheocean.com/journal/...
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