Every time I see Joan, the giant Pacific octopus at the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, I think of the movie “Arrival.”
In the movie, 12 alien spaceships appear at locations across the Earth, including one in Montana. In the extraterrestrial spacecraft, two squid-like alien beings float in a sea of smoky mist and communicate by drawing black ink circles about the future. They are called “heptapods” due to their seven symmetrical tentacles.
For most of us, cephalopods (squid and octopus), like the heptapods, seem alien — and for good reason.
Octopuses have most of their neurons in their eight arms and not their brain; it’s almost like they have nine brains. It’s difficult to determine where their brain ends or begins. Altogether, an octopus has about 2,000 suckers. Each sucker has about 10,000 neurons with the capacity to smell, taste and feel.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Joan, a young Giant Pacific Octopus, has lived for about a year at the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach. She is scheduled to be released back into the wild.
Central Coast Aquarium
Even though their large round eyes can’t see color, giant Pacific octopuses can match their skin tone and texture to their surroundings in an instant to camouflage themselves. It’s still a mystery how they are able to this.
They use tools to hunt and can solve problems, like unscrewing jars to obtain food from the inside. The only bony structure they have is their beak; consequently, they can escape from an opening as small as a coin.
To turn off the lights at night, a few octopuses in aquariums have learned to squirt jets of water at light bulbs to short-circuit them.
Unlike the fish, Joan has come to recognize different staff members at the Central Coast Aquarium. The staff have learned just how smart these invertebrates are and the tremendous amount of the work and expertise it takes to keep them intellectually challenged and healthy.
Overall, they live a mostly solitary life of between three and five years and can grow to 16 feet from arm to arm and weigh up to 130 pounds. The largest giant Pacific octopus documented measured 36 feet and was nearly 600 pounds. About every month or so, they go through a process called “turning gears,” where they shed their old cells on their suction cups that flake off like snow.
Their blood is copper-based and blue in color, unlike our iron-based red blood. Copper-based blood tends to cope better with the lower oxygen levels in depths down to 330 feet where these creatures can live.
Local news matters
We rely on readers like you more than ever before to support us as we tell stories about the people and issues important to SLO County readers.
Subscribe to The Tribune today for just 99 cents for your first month — and help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal
Joan is growing too large for her enclosure and after her released will live the rest of her life in the open ocean.
“It’s definitely bittersweet to say farewell to Joan,” Aquarium Executive Director Christine Johnson said. “Many people in our community have developed a bond with her, and she has many repeat visitors who are simply in awe of this incredible animal and who appreciate being able see her up close.
“And thanks to Joan’s time at the Central Coast Aquarium, thousands of visitors have learned more about this very clever, absolutely gorgeous and highly elusive marine animal that lives just off our shores.”
Joan was named in honor of Joan Geller-Sargent for her tireless support of the aquarium and the marine education it provides for students throughout Central California.
You can see Joan at the aquarium Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, contact the Central Coast Aquarium at 805-595-7280 or visit their website at centralcoastaquarium.com.
John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
In a behind-the-scenes video posted on the Central Coast Aquarium’s Facebook page, the predatory red octopus can be viewed stalking and eating a live black spotted bay shrimp using a "ballooning" technique.