Read an Excerpt
Andreino the octopus muse from the Laschi biorobotics lab in Livorno, Italy.
(Katherine Harmon Courage)
The octopus is a tough beast to grasp. With eight arms, three hearts, camouflaging skin, and a disarmingly sentient look in its eyes, how could it appear anything but utterly alien? The octopus has been beguiling humans for as long as we have been catching it: millennia. Cultures have created octopus-centric creation myths, art, and, of course, cuisine. For all of our ancient fascination and the millions of dollars funneled into modern research, we still have not been able to get a handle on these slippery creatures.
But let’s not let that stop us. From a fishing boat on the high Spanish seas to a robotics lab in Italy to an octopus distributor in Brooklyn, we will discover what makes the octopus so fascinating—and what it can teach us. (And yes, for good measure, we’ll also taste a few of them.) So sit back and relax—fix yourself an octopus’s garden cocktail* if you like—as we plunge into the realm of the strong, slick, smart, and occasionally delicious octopus.
The ancient Greeks christened the animal októpous, which means, unimaginatively—and slightly inaccurately—“eight foot” (the correct label for the appendages is actually “arms”). And while we’re clearing the nomenclatorial air, thanks to this Greek origin, the preferred common plural is octopuses—not octopi, octopodes, or octopussies.
Whatever one chooses to call them, there is no doubt that these animals have a strange hold on our imaginations. The stories of monstrous, multiarmed mythical krakens surface periodically throughout literature, legend, art, and film. According to Hawaiian mythology, the octopus is the only living holdover from the world’s previous incarnations. Per local Gilbert Islands legend, the octopus god Na Kika is responsible for having pushed the islands up from the bottom of the sea. The strange octopus-dragon-human beast Cthulhu, created by writer H. P. Lovecraft, has appeared in popular culture for nearly a century and was even featured on a few episodes of the television show South Park. Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, from the first century, describes a giant octopus that weighed in excess of six hundred pounds and took fish from villagers. And a picturesque Italian town called Tellaro, on the coast in Liguria, has erected homages to the giant octopus that reputedly saved the village by ringing the church tower bell to warn of an impending invasion.
Octopus door adornment in Tellaro, Italy.
(Katherine Harmon Courage)
In the mid-twentieth century, sporting divers vied to wrest some of the biggest octopuses from the ocean in organized octopus wrestling competitions. More recently, contestants on a Japanese game show tackled a tremendous (if sluggish) specimen in a large tank. The octopus has served as inspiration for at least a couple of comic book supervillains who use their intellect and sometimes their additional arms to further their nefarious plots. Octopuses have crept into real-life research labs, helping scientists to better understand the nervous system, build camouflaging materials, and construct soft-bodied robots.
Today, anyone with an Internet connection can view a number of public aquarium octopus webcams and see what the animals are up to right at this very moment. Octopus lovers can also join the online Cephalopod Tea Party or the discussion at the Everything Octopus blog. True devotees log on to the TONMO (The Octopus News Magazine Online) community and attend the related semiannual TONMOCON (the TONMO Convention). The octopus has even been the muse for an entire short story anthology (Suction Cup Dreams, which includes titles such as “Vulgaris,” “A Stranger Returns from an Unexpected Trip to the South China Sea,” and “Three-Hearted”). Its likeness crops up in tattoos, as upholstery patterns, on neckties, and even in erotic art—a testament to its odd and far-reaching allure. The singer Fiona Apple demonstrated, in a 2012 music video, that an octopus can even be fashionable head wear. Internet videos showing them strangling sharks or lurching about on land (both feats they are capable of) have made these animals offbeat stars.
Humans have been catching octopuses for thousands of years. We currently drag in more than fifty thousand tons of these muscly animals annually. People have caught them with lures, spears, pot traps, nets, and their bare hands. Culinary strategies are even more varied. You can order them boiled as a Spanish appetizer, baked into a Maltese pizza, pressed and sliced into Italian octopus soppressata, grilled as a Greek entrée, raw as Japanese sushi, or even half alive in Korean cuisine. You can also pick them up brined, dried, cured, salted, or frozen. In the narrow streets of some Greek islands, you can literally run right into fresh, locally caught octopuses hanging out on lines to dry in the sun. Although the arms are usually the main dining attraction, the ink, which the animals employ for defense, is still used today for sauces and food coloring.
But many researchers profess to love the octopus not for its meat—er, arms—but for its brains. “They are interesting because they are the smartest invertebrate,” says biologist Roland Anderson, who worked with octopuses for more than forty years at the Seattle Aquarium. Okay, so they’re smarter than your average garden worm, big deal. But when you consider that more than 95 percent of the creatures on earth are invertebrates, they’re facing an awful lot of competition, which comes from a lot of different evolutionary avenues. And octopuses are, after all, mollusks, as are oysters, which, Anderson points out, “don’t do much” and aren’t terribly intelligent. “Octopuses do so much more,” he says. “They are a predator, they go out to find food, they build dens and they modify them, they use tools, they use spatial navigation, they have play behavior, they recognize individual people. So . . . octopuses are pretty smart.” And, yes, some of them even make “gardens.”
Yet octopuses haven’t created extensively manicured estates, built any underwater Atlantises, or developed complex social groups à la humpback whales. But their lack of civilization doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. As we shall soon find out, they are incredibly intelligent. They can solve simple mazes, open childproof bottles, and even, some argue, use tools. Not too shabby when your closest kin are calamari. Some devotees of Paul, the 2010 FIFA World Cup match–predicting octopus, will contend that they can even be prescient. So popular was the now-deceased Paul, he has inspired numerous imitators, including other octopuses, a llama, a pig, a ferret, an elephant, and various other creatures. He is also the inspiration for a German fortune-telling book, Das Okrakel: Krake Paul prophezeit, wie es in deinem Leben weitergeht (which translates, roughly, to: “The Oracle: Paul the octopus prophesizes what will happen in your life”), whose cover features an octopus spinner that points to answers. He even prompted a full-length documentary: The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus.
For all of their impressive intelligence and domestic attentiveness, octopuses are, by our standards, incredibly short-lived. Even the giant Pacific octopus lives for only a few years. The male dies soon after mating, and the female begins to waste away after laying her eggs—barely sticking around to watch her thousands of delicate young float upward into the maw of a predator-filled ocean. Thus they pass along nothing more to their offspring than their genes.
Octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, and nautiluses make up the cephalopod group (cephalopoda, from the Latin for “head-foot”). And cephalopods are all members of the mollusk phylum (mollusca), making them relatives of similarly spineless snails, slugs, and oysters (mollis means “soft” in Latin). Octopuses themselves are an astoundingly diverse order, containing some three hundred known species. The quintessential octopus—the big-headed, thick-armed character of children’s books—is actually a pretty fair characterization. In fact, there is even such a thing as the common octopus, which comes complete with a Linnaean classification: Octopus vulgaris. It is “chunky in appearance,” according to the FAO (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization), with what it calls “stout” (read: meaty) arms.
The common octopus also happens to be the most frequently consumed octopus. It lives practically the world over, from the cool waters off the coast of northern Spain to the warm tropics around Vietnam. It thrives mostly along continental shelves, from the tidal shallows down to more than 650 feet, and it keeps to areas of about 46 degrees Fahrenheit and warmer. But those requirements make for a pretty big territory. And with the hundreds of other species, there’s an octopus for just about any water.
There’s no telling what possessed the first person to pull an octopus from the ocean and call it dinner. But it was already so important to cultures thousands of years ago that it was featured on Cretan and Minoan coins (from approximately 1650 to 1500 BCE and 1450 to 1375 BCE, respectively) and inspired stirrup jar potters in the Mycenaean era (circa 1200 to 1100 BCE). Its ancient form on these vessels is slender, almost buglike, surrounded by abstract swirls of water. And since then the octopus has made it all the way to Fifth Avenue in New York City, its image scattered on these artefacts throughout the Greco-Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Octopuses, of course, far predate ancient Minoan money or Greek interest in seafood. Cephalopods have been around for some 500 million years. And the octopus’s earliest recognizable forebears were skulking about the Carboniferous seas by about 300 million years ago, when the first four-legged reptiles were just starting to move up onto land. And these ancient octopuses had already evolved into something that would not look all that different from the deep-sea octopuses in the cirrina group that exists today, which have webbed arms and small fins.
The oldest described octopus fossil is known as Pohlsepia and now lives at the Field Museum in Chicago. The full sample looks rather more like a cow patty—flattened out into a globular splat—than a rock containing a rare, precious fossilized octopus. But researchers say they can make out its eight arms, two eyes, and maybe even an ink sac. It’s estimated to have lived about 296 million years ago—even before the emergence of the dinosaurs. A 95-million-year-old fossilized octopus, uncovered in Lebanon, showed that definitely by then—the late Cretaceous, when Tyrannosaurus rex was terrorizing North American fauna—these mollusks had already pretty much modernized, sprouting suckers and boasting a clearly defined ink sac. “To really understand more about the ancestry of the octopus, it will be important to have earlier specimens,” says Joanne Kluessendorf, director of the Weis Earth Science Museum at the University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley and one of the describers of Pohlsepia. But that is challenging because these animals are composed mostly of soft tissue, which does not take well to the fossilization process. Their hardest part is made of cartilage-like chitin, which does not fossilize as readily as bone.
Aristotle, one of the earliest-recorded observers of the octopus, made some surprisingly astute remarks about the animal in his fourth-century volume History of Animals. He was famously unimpressed with their intelligence, concluding that “the octopus is a stupid creature.”
But in the intervening twenty-three hundred years, humans have gotten wiser to the octopus’s different breed of smarts. The U.S. military has been funding research to study its camouflage abilities; universities are building robots inspired by its arms; and even back in the 1940s the Marshall Plan lobbed a hunk of money over to Naples, Italy, to see if a lab there could crack the code of the cephalopod brain to make more efficient computers. But despite all of the effort we have put into racking its brain, the octopus seems as foreign to us as ever.
Why do we have such difficulty understanding them? What sets them so apart? Maybe it’s their many serpentine arms, their boneless bodies, or their otherworldly environments. But it must go beyond even these differences. We can relate to the maternal protectiveness of a deep-sea dwelling whale. We can draw familiar comparisons with a colony of insects, pointing to classes of “warriors” and “workers.” But the octopus is much harder to pin down.
One thing that makes the octopus so very odd to us is its essential indifference to other octopuses. After an octopus hatches from its tiny egg and dissipates from its siblings in the ocean currents, it will live most of the rest of its life alone. Unlike squid, which often travel and feed in groups, the octopus crawls along seeking the company of its own kind only to reproduce. And unlike the committed octopus couple in the Oscar-nominated animated short film Oktapodi, these animals hardly establish lasting bonds. They often mate only once.
We have only recently come to recognize complex social behaviors, such as cooperation and teaching, as signs of higher cognition in other animals. The octopus’s dearth of these prosocial behaviors puts it at a considerable disadvantage for gaining easy esteem from humans, at least from those of us (myself included) who have not spent a large part of our professional lives observing these cephalopods.
So to get to know and love the octopus, we must be willing to approach it with a certain amount of open-mindedness. As your humble octopus guide, I will admit to only scant encounters with octopuses for the first twenty-eight years of my life. But knowing relatively little about these creatures, I was able to discover them anew as the alien animals that they seem—to most of us—to be.
Growing up in Oklahoma in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t afford encounters with real octopuses. Even the first time my parents introduced my brothers and me to fried calamari, on a family trip to the East Coast, they refused to tell us what it was until we had sampled a few of what looked to us like mini onion rings. They weren’t so bad. But even at eleven, I had to admit that I would never have tried them if I had known those light, golden brown, breaded rings contained . . . squid.
The only “octopus” I recall from childhood was the eponymous ride at the scrappy, now-defunct Bells Amusement Park in Tulsa. The black fiberglass ride had a menacingly painted round head surrounded by eight pivoting arms, each wielding two free-twirling cars that whipped around as the ride banked and rotated like a demonic Tilt-A-Whirl. Standing in line with my stomach-of-steel mother, we would watch the ride slowly spin to a stop and disgorge the dizzy parkgoers. You just had to keep your eye on the dripping-wet, freshly hosed-off car and hope you wouldn’t get that one when your turn came to board.
It would be another fifteen years until I met another octopus, and this one would manage to actually turn my stomach. It came in the form of a seemingly harmless platter of grilled arms, served in an open-air seaside restaurant in Hvar, Croatia. I was on vacation with a good friend from college who had spent her childhood summers with aunts and uncles in Greece. A seasoned octopus eater, she assured me that the dish would be amazing. I’ve always prided myself on adventurous eating, perhaps fortified by the childhood calamari experience. Chocolate-covered ants at my brother’s Boy Scout dinner? Done. Rocky Mountain oysters at a political convention in Denver? Down the hatch. A pile of grilled octopus arms? Should be no problem. So for the sake of the challenge, I forced down as many of the rubbery, suckery red limbs as I could and tried to forget about it.
Everything was going fine until the next morning. We had ventured to an Internet café. Down a narrow hallway was a close, stuffy little room full of other budget-conscious travelers typing away on ancient PCs. It was easy to suppress the first couple of waves of nausea. But soon there was no denying it. The octopus wanted out. I bolted for the hall but didn’t quite make the front door before there it was again: on my tote, my flip-flops, the floor.
Octopus, it seemed, wasn’t my thing. In fact, why would it be anyone’s thing? They’re slimy, spineless, solitary cephalopods that occupy the sunless crevasses below the sea. Why should we bother ourselves with them at all?
These strange animals, it turns out, have a lot to teach us—about learning, about biology, about evolution, about themselves, and about ourselves. Still, it was rather a surprise that octopuses were the reason I was standing on a dock at 5 a.m. in the dark chill of a Spanish September morning waiting for an unknown fisherman. And this is where our adventure begins.
The octopus is solitary, reclusive, and often nocturnal. Wresting one from its cozy underwater den is not a task for the weak of spirit—or the weak of stomach. Octopus fishermen often face long odds and rough seas to haul in these swarthy cephalopods. Nevertheless, this tough task is undertaken off the coast of just about every continent, via almost every imaginable method. With each octopus needing to be caught more or less on its own, the craft of octopus fishing holds a certain mystique. And to succeed, one must have a deep understanding of where the animal lives and what makes it tick. So to begin to understand the octopus, one must take to the seas.
My attempt to catch octopuses was off to a rocky start. My brand-new Canon digital SLR camera was already splattered with fish scales and puke, and it wasn’t yet 7 a.m. The trip was either perfect or it couldn’t have been going worse. I couldn’t decide which, though, because the bucket of sloshing dead octopuses at my feet just wouldn’t stay in my camera’s viewfinder as the tiny Spanish fishing boat I was on heaved from port to starboard. And José Dios, the stocky, friendly captain, kept hauling up octopus traps faster than I could mumble “Lo siento” each time I bolted to lean over the gunwale and upchuck my nonexistent breakfast.
I had come to Spain to learn about octopus ecology from scientists in Vigo and to sample some of the local specialty pulpo a feira, a dish of soft-boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika, sea salt, and olive oil. But what could be better than an early morning fishing expedition with two actual octopus fishermen? Nothing—or so I’d thought when the idea was proposed my first morning in town. So I signed on.
Teach a Man to Octopus . . .
Fishing was probably the way humans first began encountering octopuses—these squirmy messes of lean protein. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been catching octopuses for at least four thousand years, when ancient Egyptians waited patiently for them to crawl into submerged clay pots. It’s an effective, if slow, strategy that was used from the west coast of Europe to eastern Asia and is still practiced in many places today.
The technology, however, has been upgraded a little, and the pots are not always the shapely ceramic vases that had been used for centuries but rather are often a more modern alternative. A pair of Portuguese researchers describe a new Japanese contraption this way: “The traps consist of a box, inside which a crab is tied to a string, therefore maintaining the door open. When an octopus enters the box and bites the crab, the box closes, thus preventing the octopus from escape.” In many places, however, octopuses are so abundant that you wouldn’t need such newfangled devices to ensure a successful catch.
In regions where they make their homes, common octopuses are around pretty much year-round. They tend to head out toward deeper waters in the winter and come in closer toward coastal shallows for breeding during the spring and summer. In high season, fishermen can collect one octopus for every three or so pots dropped. Those catches can come out to some ninety pounds of octopus per hour. It’s hard work, but that haul makes for a lot of octopus salads.
Octopus fisheries experts in Spain and elsewhere object that fishing by pot (jar, box, or what have you) can be particularly hard on octopus populations. To most octopuses, a jar looks like a nice place to hide and make a temporary home. But for a female ready to lay eggs, it makes an especially nice spot to guard her brood. That means the haul includes not only a mature octopus but also all of her would-be babies—and their future would-be babies and their future would-be babies, and so on. Pot-fishing defenders contend that it’s not so much the space that lures the octopuses into the containers but the bait inside of them. And because spawning females mostly stop eating while they tend their eggs, the Portuguese researchers note, these octopuses aren’t likely to be tricked into using the traps as brooding dens. Nevertheless, to be safe, many regions have banned this method.
In the Pacific, around Hawaii, commercial fishers catch octopus via a lure on a line. The lures, now often made to look like crabs, were once simple cowrie shells. Dangled along the bottom on a long line, the lure can trick octopuses into thinking the object might be lunch. If the octopus takes the bait and grabs it, it can be impaled by several long, thin, barbless hooks and then yanked up by the fisher.
Ancient Greeks used bait to lure in octopuses: “The cuttle-fish, the octopus, and the crawfish may be caught by bait,” Aristotle wrote. And the octopuses themselves could in turn be used to catch other seafood. He noted that fishermen “bake the octopus and bait their fish-baskets or weels with it, entirely, as they say, on account of its smell.”
On the other hand, some octopus hunters use no lure, bait, or trap at all. Some fishers in Mauritius spear octopuses with harpoons from their boats or in the wadable waters of tidal areas. And some people even collect them with their bare hands.
Yet another more modern tactic is the bottom trawl. For this approach, a net is dragged along the seafloor, weighted down on one end to catch animals like octopuses that live on the seabed. This sort of one-fell-swoop method, however, is rather indiscriminate, scooping up anything that lies in its path. This not only can harm other animals that are caught (even if they are later thrown back), but it can also muck up delicate seafloor habitats—tumbling over rocks, killing coral, and pulling up plants. For this reason, many groups concerned with sustainability discourage trawling—and eating food caught by trawl. In Mauritian octopus trawls, for example, some 60 percent of what comes up is undesired bycatch that gets thrown back no matter what condition the animal is in. And even in the Mediterranean, where many different species, including fish, octopus, squid, and crustaceans, are kept, discarded bycatch still reaches as much as 50 percent. In Portugal, octopuses are often themselves bycatch. Those that weigh enough can be sold, but juveniles caught in the nets often don’t fare so well after being thrown back. Vietnamese fishermen keep everything they haul in—whether or not it’s mature—and use whatever is unsellable for animal feed, fertilizer, or fish sauce.
Trawling can also make habitats less livable for octopuses and other denizens. Some places are more vulnerable to this kind of fishing than others. Because fragile coral ecosystems can seriously suffer from a tough trawl, some areas in Europe restrict trawls to offshore muddy or sandy areas that are fifty meters or more deep. And often the octopuses out there are curled octopus (Eledone cirrhosa), which aren’t quite as desirable as the ones closer to shore. Locals in Spain call them “the poor brother” of the common octopus caught by traps in shallower waters, so they are canned and sold abroad.
The Seven Seas
Octopuses have reached their long arms into all of the world’s oceans and most of its seas. Most known species live in a thick band of tropical and temperate waters along the relatively shallow areas near the continents (convenient for us!). Some species, however, have made it into more extreme environments. The aptly named Vulcanoctopus hydrothermalis, for example, makes its home near the piping-hot, mineral-rich hydrothermal vents thousands of feet below the ocean surface. Others, such as the Antarctic Turquet’s octopus (Pareledone turqueti) and Arctic “Dumbo” octopuses (Grimpoteuthis), inhabit deep, frigid, downright polar waters. So basically, octopuses are everywhere.
Much of the wide distribution is thanks to their long-odds strategy of reproduction. Most female octopuses lay thousands of small eggs. Upon hatching, these young’uns float up near the surface, joining clouds of other plankton for a period of weak swimming and current-driven drifting. Most of the offspring will end up as food for larger plankton feeders or as casualties of inhospitable seas. But with any luck, a few will survive the journey to adolescence and make their way down to the seafloor, where they will grow up and make thousands of their own baby octopuses.
Genetic sequencing offers the possibility at last to begin studying just how far and wide these newly hatched speck-sized cephalopods can float. But so far scientists have not yet been able to draw a definitive map of distribution. As Jaime Otero, a young fisheries biologist I met up with in Spain, points out, collecting little larval octopuses for sampling populations and abundance is a pretty inefficient endeavor. “You only obtain maybe a hundred larvae in the nets,” he says. When scientists need huge numbers to have a statistically sound sample, collecting is “one of the big bottlenecks,” he says.
Pulpo a Feira
To find lots of octopuses, the first place we must go is Vigo, in the northwestern region of Galicia. In fact, it would be remiss to skip this epicenter of octopuses. The city specializes in receiving, processing, and shipping octopuses from and to the world over. Huge ships pull in alongside massive warehouses in its industrial harbor, but its narrow old town streets still give off a steamy eau de octopus as the restaurants boil up fresh catch for the traditional pulpo a feira dish.
I nearly don’t make it to Vigo. But after seventeen hours of travel from Malta, I am at last on the day’s final Iberia flight from Madrid to Vigo. It is almost 11 p.m., and the countryside below is mostly black, except for intermittent clumps of light latching on to the dark floor.
As we come in for a landing in Vigo, the moon—which looks like the comforting 1920s’ vintage man in the moon—has appeared in the window. A dark horizon stretches out ahead, which, I assume, must be the ocean. The octopuses, I think, they’re out there—all of them, cavorting about in search of crabs under the soft Spanish September moonlight. The Ahabian octopus obsession has already taken hold.
By the light of the next morning, I see that the darkness had been not the nearby ocean but mountains wrapping the coast like a collar thrown high to fend off the stiff ocean winds. The town of Vigo is cast onto a hillside sloping down to the bay below. Otero, who has studied the local octopus fisheries, had offered to show me around.
For my first day in town, he suggests a local tour of his own devising. Little did I know that the next day I would be heading off to sea to hunt for actual octopuses. He picks me up from my hotel and we cruise along the city’s waterfront, a fortress of monumental ocean-related industries. First is the fancy pleasure-boat area, where sailboats are stationed in slips and a statue of Jules Verne is perched atop four awfully octopus-like arms (despite the fact that the beasts in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were squid). Next is the cruise ship terminal with its embarrassingly large floating hotel malls. Then we pass the commercial fishing section, which sends massive modern fishing ships all over the world—Africa, the Falklands, the Indian Ocean, the Antarctic—and receives the frozen catches to ship back out to the world’s consumers. One big distribution company even has a giant octopus logo on its building. Next we drive by the shipbuilding area, now struggling to keep pace with countries that can manufacture fishing vessels on the cheap.
Jules Verne sculpture in Vigo.
(Katherine Harmon Courage)
Finally, we arrive at the Spanish National Research Council’s Instituto de Investigaciones Marinas, where Otero had done his octopus research. The building is a low-slung mid-twentieth-century number. There we meet Ángel Guerra, a well-groomed older man in a plaid button-down shirt. “My old boss,” Otero introduces him. After walking us upstairs to his tidy office, Guerra pulls up two decades-old rolling chairs and asks me what, exactly, it is that I have come to learn about octopuses.
This is a question I was getting used to hearing after announcing to scientists, who had spent decades studying cephalopods, that I, with but a bachelor’s in English, a master’s in journalism, and a magazine job in New York City, was writing about octopuses. I explain to him that I am there to learn everything I can. But it cannot possibly be boiled down, he says. As a civil servant, he has been working for the Instituto for nearly four decades. He started when there were just a handful of others, but now there are more than two hundred people there studying cephalopod ecology, fisheries, and oceanography as well as marine food technology. I have come to the right place, he says, but my timing is bad. You see, in Spain they have at least two or three octopus feasts a month between April and September, yet I’d managed to arrive just a couple of weeks after the last big one of the year. I must stay for at least a few weeks to learn about the octopus and its place in the culture, he says. Alas, I cannot. So he gives me a sixty-minute summary, listing his research highlights and telling tales of doing the tako-tako octopus dances he’d learned in northern Japan. Almost midthought, he glances at his watch and suggests that it is time for a coffee break.
We head out the front door, across the main road, and down a small street lined with cafés. At one, a boisterous group of young people is sitting out in the sun enjoying small coffees, slices of bready cakes, and Spanish tortillas with egg and potato. This, it turns out, is Guerra’s lab team. As soon as I shake hands with all the men and trade cheek kisses with the women, Ángel González, a tall man with curly dark Spanish hair, is peppering me with stories of his time studying in the States and his trips to New York City.
Eventually, the coffee consumed and the snacks eaten, the group reluctantly gets up to return to the lab. But first, Guerra says, we must swing through a local fish market. It is already emptied of octopus for the day, but it still has on display loads of shining fish, crabs, and squid on ice—all of which could easily sneak up on you because they have absolutely no smell. Not even a hint of the sea’s brininess. After having walked through the streets of New York City’s Chinatown so many times in the hot summer—or even the frozen middle of winter—it is a revelation that a fish counter could be totally free of that pungent odor. It makes seafood—a food group that categorically repulsed me as a child—seem a much more natural and approachable staple.
When we arrive back at the labs, Guerra takes me on a quick tour of the building, a labyrinth of offices and laboratories. We poke our heads into one room where a team has banks of aquariums in which they are trying to rear delicate sea horses to repopulate areas where they have been depleted. Next we arrive in an office where González is talking intently into a telephone receiver. “Sí, sí, mañana si posible,” he says, after which I lose his quickening stream of Spanish. After what I gather is a bit of explanation about my research and quite a bit of cajoling, he scribbles some notes on a Post-it and thanks the other party profusely.
I am going on a fishing trip tomorrow, it appears. He hands Otero the Post-it and says we just need to get an insurance policy from a particular agent so that I am covered for my trip to sea—or else I cannot get on the boat. Insurance seems excessive and a bit ominous, but I’m so excited about the possibility of the expedition that I don’t care.
Otero and I set out to find this insurance agent. And after much negotiating and waiting and more negotiating, we manage to secure my necessary paperwork for the trip. “Guard that like gold,” Otero says of my insurance packet. “Of course! It’s my passport to the sea,” I say lamely, stuffing it into my tote bag. And we head off to find some pulpo a feira for a late Spanish lunch.
We walk down Vigo’s tourist strip, named for the pulpeiras. In this traditional octopus preparation method, women, the pulpeiras, boil the day’s octopus catch in big barrels right on the street. Off the main drag, in an old square, we step into a small restaurant with half a dozen wooden tables. Otero orders us a maritime feast and explains each dish as it arrives, carefully writing down the names for me in my notebook, being sure to include the Latin names of each species we consume. Everything is fantastic—fresh, light, and delicious—and the local Albariño white wine, with its slight bite of acidity, is perfect. But the main feature is the pulpo a feira (or polbo a feira in Galician), which means something like “fair-style octopus.” It is exquisitely tender. The skin layer has an almost fatty texture, which is artfully balanced by the granular sea salt.
Pulpo a Feira
Courtesy of Jaime Otero
Defrost an octopus, which has ideally been frozen for one to three days—a process that breaks down the tough fibers of the muscles, making them more tender.
Boil it in water and olive oil for about 30 to 40 minutes (or until almost tender, depending on the size of the octopus).
Optionally, add pieces of potato to the boiling water for the last 15 minutes of cooking.
Remove the octopus and potatoes from the water when they are both tender.
Cut the octopus arms into small pieces with kitchen scissors.
Serve octopus and potatoes on a plate with olive oil, sweet and spicy paprika, and salt.
Vigo is perched on the fertile coastal edge of Galicia in northwestern Spain. The area is dominated by rivers that flow out to sea in five separate estuaries or embayments—locally known as the rías. The surrounding coast is rock and, in many places, quite steep. Otero and I drive along the smooth, curvy roads. When we catch glimpses of coves and dropping cliffs, Otero points out his favorite spearfishing spots. The craggy rock continues below the surface, providing perfect hideouts for octopuses and their favorite local food: blue crabs.
A dense fog is rolling in, and eucalyptus trees hang on to the steep embankments, making the whole scene indistinguishable from northern California—complete with the vineyards and excellent wine. It’s actually a very similar climatic environment, Otero points out. The cliffs, the flora, and even the fog are all part of a system that starts out at sea with the ocean and wind currents. It is these winds, currents, and cliffs that have made places like Galicia an Eden for octopuses—and, in recent centuries, also for the people who fish for them.
The oceanic process behind all of this is called upwelling. It occurs when cold, nutrient-rich waters flow up from the deep and move into the shallower areas closer to the shore. This upwelling brings with it a feast for young octopuses in the area. As the seasons and the prevailing winds change, so does the underwater current, eventually starting a downwelling cycle. But between these welling events are brief seasons of relative calm, when wind and currents relax, not pushing or pulling in their normal frantic fashion. The transitions keep new hatchling octopuses close to the coast, protecting them from being swept out to the deeper, less hospitable seas.
We arrive in the small fishing town of Cangas do Morrazo, its harbor full of small colorful boats. These modest craft are somehow responsible for the bulk of the Galician catch, which is no small feat. It is on a boat like this that I will be venturing into octopus territory early the next morning.
Along the harbor edges, piles of what look like homemade lobster traps are stacked neatly. These traps are crafted from various combinations of wood, carefully welded metal, tire rubber, plastic pipes, and netting. And they are not, it turns out, made to catch lobster. Rather, they are creels made for catching other bottom-dwelling, benthic beasts: octopuses. Each is connected along a long line, which is unfurled, creel by creel, to rest on the bottom. There they sit, waiting for an octopus or two to crawl in—lured by a pouch of stinky seafood bait. The beauty of the design is that the octopus could find its way out if it wanted. “But inside they have food,” Guerra had explained that morning. From the octopus’s perspective, he concludes: “So why would I want to go out? I am very comfortable in here.”
The sea’s harvests are brought ashore and sold right away at tiny dedicated buildings called lonxa, which means auction in the local Galician dialect. These are run by the local fishing cooperatives. In the old lonxa, the day’s catches are piled by type on the floor, and a caller sings out the prices in Galician as local buyers for restaurants and shops place their bids. Traditionally, Guerra says, the women would be the ones to purchase the day’s goods. The caller starts at a high price and counts down (an interesting reversal, perhaps reflecting an assumed high inherent worth of the catch). When a price seems right, a buyer yells out, “Hep!” Stop!
Creels stacked on the docks in Galicia.
(Katherine Harmon Courage)
Of the several dozen lonxa in Galicia, the old stone buildings are slowly being replaced by modern auction houses, where the goods move down a conveyor belt in trays. A screen ticks down the prices and buyers simply have to press a button to make their purchase. Otero seems to think the new auctions will bring more efficiency to the process—or at least there will be “no spitting,” he jokes. But that also means that no longer will locals be able to buy their seafood for a song.
For his research, Otero had been interested in assessing just how much octopus the local artisanal fisheries were actually bringing in. Some of his papers had included interviews with local fishermen about their octopus catches and fishing habits. Only now was I noticing that Otero—with his Converse sneakers, hipster T-shirt, and Ray-Ban glasses—though from the region, seemed almost as out of place on these working docks as I did. He would not exactly chat up the octopus fishermen. “You don’t want to mess with fishermen,” Otero says turning toward me. “They always carry knives.” A local technician who knew some of the local fishermen had done the interviewing, he says. “I just analyzed the data.” The next day’s trip was suddenly sounding a little more foreboding.
In spite of their toughness, Spanish octopus fishermen, I learned, are hardly different from American bass anglers or even Okie noodlers. Most of them have their favorite lucky spots, whose locations are kept as carefully guarded secrets. And with more than nine hundred miles of craggy coast in Galicia, there are plenty of secret spots.
In Spain each fishing boat has a logbook in which fishermen are required to record their catches. But as Otero explains, a bit of fatigue crawling into his otherwise energetic voice, often the fishermen “just don’t care.” In Galicia alone, there are some four thousand of these small vessels that bring in the majority of the region’s catch, “which means that the small-scale fishery in Galicia is huge and has a very high social importance,” he says. So it’s kind of a touchy subject when it comes to proposing new regulations. Especially with so many knife-wielding fishermen.
The Spanish researchers also have no way of knowing how much effort the octopus fishermen are putting in to catch what they do. Are they pulling up mostly full creels and only fishing for part of the day? Or are they casting the traps out like crazy all day only to reel in a few per line of creels? These questions are not necessarily out of concern for the fishermen’s overall job satisfaction or general morale, but rather they are important for measuring the health of the local octopus population.
We looked out over the harbor of colorful, bobbing boats. With each tiny boat being manned by two or three fishermen pulling up creel after single creel, and tubs of octopuses being dumped onto the floors of local auction houses to be sold literally by a Galician song, the whole thing suddenly seems impossible to track. “Does it give you a headache thinking about trying to manage a fishery like this?” I ask him. He pauses and exhales. “It is not for me,” he says. I ask whether it could be done at all. “Maybe it’s not possible.”
Our final stop of the day is Bueu, the town from which I’ll be leaving on my expedition early the next morning. We walk down to the harbor to find the boat where I am to meet my local fishermen at 5 a.m. Walking down the second dock in Bueu’s harbor, as we had been instructed, we hunt for the name of the boat. And there she is.
The Nuevo Carolay in Bueu’s harbor.
(Katherine Harmon Courage)
The Nuevo Carolay, with an attractive blue deck to offset the white pilothouse and strip of red roof, looks like most of the other fishing boats tied up in Bueu’s harbor. As a bit of whimsy, a stuffed toy cow is tied up to the light beacon on top. Shrunk down, she would have made a perfect bathtub toy. Little did I know that despite the clear skies, this ride would be more like the bath of a tempestuous toddler.