Story by Hannah Knighton Northern Waters Intern.
Freya has finally figured out that my hand is not food, but a friend. The Giant Pacific Octopus was named by senior aquarist Bill Murphy after a Scandinavian goddess, as she’s been cold and standoffish ever since her August arrival at the aquarium. She had only recently been transported to the New England Aquarium from a facility on the west coast, and even more recently transferred from her holding tank to her 6,000-gallon exhibit tank. Freya has since preferred to take food from long tongs and rarely leaves the far right corner of her tank to venture towards the door.
You can only imagine my surprise to find Freya jetting towards me as I opened the door on a Monday afternoon in mid-November. She was a deep red as her suckers caught hold of the rock wall near the door. She climbed up and turned to look at me with her left eye. My heartbeat instantly increased, she had never greeted anyone like this before. I scrambled to pull a fish out of her food bowl to offer her when my eye caught hold of the blue Kong toy near the door to the tank.
A weekend volunteer had tried to get Freya to explore the Kong previously, but she had showed little interest in playing. But this day seemed different, so I stuffed the Kong with a capelin. I carefully placed the toy in the water, worried it wouldn’t float, as Freya stretched two arms out towards me. One arm grabbed the toy, the other grabbed my hand.
As Freya wrapped her arms around the toy, her suckers explored my palm and fingertips. I could feel her strong hold drawing the blood towards my fingertips, but I didn’t want to break away. She kept her left eye at the surface, as wide-eyed as an octopus can be. As I watched her experiment with the toy, she intently observed me in return. Freya seemed to be the ultimate multitasker in that moment, both figuring out the toy and myself. She had never been this curious before, and I was worried the moment would end quickly.
In Sy Montgomery’s book, Soul of an Octopus, she talks about entering “octopus time”. Well that day, I entered octopus time, as I cannot tell you how long I played with Freya. It could have been 5 minutes or an hour, either way I was lost in my interactions with her.
Freya found new ways to extract her treat from the Kong the more I gave it to her. One time she stuck her arm inside the Kong and pulled the fish out. The second time she held the Kong upside down until the fish eventually slipped out. The third time, she brought the Kong straight to her mouth and sucked on it until the shrimp was released. After she obtained her reward, she would sometimes play with the Kong, exploring the grooves and ridges with her suckers or passing it from one arm to the next.
Freya eventually tired of the toy, and I figured that would be more than enough play for her in one day. She released the toy, then began to move closer towards me. Once again, she turned her left eye to face me and presented me with her head. I was so nervous she would quickly shy away, but I decided to reach out and stroke her head. She didn’t move as I carefully ran my fingertips across her silky soft head, her color changing each time my fingers ran across her mantle.
With no more food to offer and my companionship no longer entertaining, Freya seemed to have grown tired, and started to shrink back towards her far corner. I was left in amazement, as she had yet to interact like this. I had finally found a sparkle in Freya. I actually bonded with her.
Since then, Freya is no longer taking food from tongs as she stays folded up in her corner. Instead, she glides towards the door and eagerly bobs at the surface. She almost seems hyper as her arms unfurl in all directions, keenly grabbing hold of food and tugging at human hands. As we feed her it’s common to see cameras flashing through the glass as school children scream in delight at the sight of her.
To me, it was as if Freya underwent a transformation. But in truth, Freya’s story acts as a demonstration of the influences change and stress have on these magnificent animals. Though her initial arrival led the workers of the Cold Marine Gallery to believe her personality to be withholding, an adjustment period unveiled the enthusiastic girl beneath the act.