The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Octopus

Earlier this week, Inky, a famous and beloved octopus, escaped from his home at the National Aquarium in New Zealand. After making it to a drain hole, he escaped off to the ocean, for a presumable life of freedom. But freedom of space does not mean freedom from loss, as Melissa Cronin envisions here.

Inky sat in the abyss, a darkness as black, ironically, as ink.

It began hours before when, sucker by sucker, arm by arm, his bulbous head dragging a slick trail across the tiled floor, the creature crawled toward a six-inch pipe in the floor. In a flash, his body folded in on itself, a grotesque fright of rust-colored skin, as he was whisked down the 164-foot-long pipe, arms twisting about, and pitched into the salty chasm.

Everything was still, including his tentacles.

“...Blotchy?” he whispered, softly, bubbles trailing from his beak in a lethargic stream to the ocean’s surface. “Blotchy, where are we? I’m scared.”

Inky whirled about, his eight arms floating up past his eyes as he turned to look for his mate, the sole companion with whom he had spent his years within a tank at the National Aquarium in New Zealand, their tentacles always lightly brushing each other, intertwining as one ball of tangled yarn. Blotchy, the one cephalopod whom he had ever loved, where was she?

No one answered. Inky was alone. He sucked water in through his muscular mantle and over his vascularized gills, his three hearts pumping like mad in the silence. He grasped the end of the pipe from where he’d been ejected, now unable to crawl back in. He hadn’t been in the open ocean for years, not since he’d been caught, sickly bloated, gorging himself in a crayfish pot, eating his feelings. He had been alone then, searching for eight arms to match his—arms which were many miles away by now.

“Oh Blotchy, my Blotchy,” he sighed, resigned to his life, once again a bachelor in the sea. “There are plenty more fish in the sea” is not a phase that applies to octopuses, he thought to himself.

“It’s a new experience, life outside four plexiglass barriers, without the gloved hand of a human grasping his tentacles!” thought Inky, as he floated through the urban runoff and discarded fishing gear in a marina off the eastern coast of New Zealand, wounded still from the loss of his love and never leaving the pipe that led to his former home. Blotchy, her skin so soft and her eyes so large and glassy, had been a master of camouflage—she could hide from him even in a ten-gallon tank. They played for hours: she, coquettish yet cunning; he, curious and amazed.

The male common New Zealand octopus, Pinnoctopus cordiformis, may only mate once—a fact of which Inky was all too aware. Once he decides to mate, the purpose of his life is fulfilled; he impregnates her, forcefully and carelessly, with a specialized arm called a hectocotylus, dumping packets of hopeful sperm into a receptor in a female octopus’s mantle cavity, to be fertilized in the days or even weeks after his glorious last moments. His sperm will regenerate in the form of his thousands of sons and daughters, while his body decomposes and mixes with the detritus of the sea.

He knew this was true, but he was, like so many bachelors, lonely. And having lost his beloved Blotchy, what more was there for him?

As this thought floated across some of the 500 million neurons encased in his brain, a flash of purple light flew past his sophisticated eye. His suckers tightened beneath him, kicking up tiny spurts of sand. The flash flew by again, and this time he saw her.

She was another Pinnoctopus cordiformis, though nothing when compared to the cephalopodic beauty of his past love, his Juliet. This octopus was lopsided, having snagged an arm on a hook some time in the past, and had a drooping mantle. Her arms were listless, her beak fell slack. She was no prize.

But for Inky, this way the only option. She presented herself to him, and he struck, wishing only for the death that would soon cure the heartache he felt for Blotchy. In moments, it was over, and he felt the energy drain from his arms. His lusty bedfellow sauntered away, scheming about the eggs she would soon release into the sea.

And then—all of a sudden—he heard a roaring sound from the pipe that still was by him, the one object that had stayed constant in his short time as a free creature. His eyes were already drooping, but not enough to hide the miracle which appeared before him. It was she, his love, his molluscan soulmate, Blotchy.

She had, by some divine miracle, followed him out of the tank, across the tile, and down the 164-foot drain! His heart was elated, he felt the joy of a mollusc reborn, they would live out their days in briny bliss, free from the tank that bound them!

He was overcome with joy as she appeared—and then, the dreaded realization washed over him like a wave. He could not undo the terrible sin he’d perpetrated just moments before, and he was dying. He barely had a moment to grieve the cataclysmic unfairness of it all. She swam to him, his squandered bride, as the light in his eyes darkened into a tunnel, and extinguished. He died as she reached his arms.

Blotchy, as is the custom for the female octopus, cannibalized her lover, sucking in his flesh, arm after arm after arm.

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