OCTOPUS RELEASES AT THE SEATTLE AQUARIUM: EIGHT ARMS DOESN’T MAKE WAVING GOODBYE ANY EASIER!

Giant Pacific octopus

 

Did you know that our expert team of divers periodically collects giant Pacific octopuses from the waters of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea so we can educate our visitors about how amazing and important they are—and then returns them to the same locations where they were collected so they can complete their life cycles and reproduce?

Giant Pacific octopuses (or as we call them for the sake of brevity, GPOs) are generally kept at the Aquarium anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half before being released back to their original homes. Amazingly, GPOs grow from the size of a grain of rice to upwards of 90 pounds in their lifetimes, which average three to five years. Below, check out a video from 2018, when we released a GPO, dubbed “Umbrella” by our staff, to his home in Neah Bay. Umbrella weighed 16 pounds when he joined us and 50 when he left us!

 

 

Why do we release our octopuses? Each year, we get a permit from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to collect a certain number of GPOs to live at the Aquarium and educate the public. When octopuses living at the Aquarium start to show signs of maturity (for example, a reduction in appetite), we make plans to release them back to the same body of water where they were collected.

Octopuses breed only toward the end of their life cycle and, by releasing our GPOs back into the wild, we help preserve the genetics of distinct populations and ensure each octopus has the opportunity to live out its full life cycle.

Fast fact: GPOs are what’s called “terminal maters,” which means they die shortly after mating.

As you might expect, preparing to release a GPO back to its home in the wild is no small task—it involves a team of experts and plenty of lead time. Seattle Aquarium Senior Aquarist (and GPO whisperer!) Kathryn Kegel recently answered a few questions about it for us:

A pre-octopus release dive briefing at the Seattle Aquarium.
A pre-octopus release (and pre-social distancing!) dive briefing behind the scenes at the Seattle Aquarium.

 

Q: What goes into preparing an octopus for release?
A: There’s a lot of preparation that goes into an octopus release! For the release we do during Octopus Week each February, for example, we actually start planning in September. We meet once a month to check on the progress of planning, making sure we’re on schedule. About a month before, we start rehearsing for the releases. We begin with a tech rehearsal to make sure all equipment, lights, camera and communication cables are working properly. Then we do a “wet” rehearsal, which basically means we do the full release without an actual animal. A release takes about 20 people to pull off, with five divers in the water and about 15 top-side support staff and interpreters. Once we’ve practiced all the steps a couple of times, we’re ready to go for the real thing!

Q: What happens after the octopus is released?
A: We don’t really know. During Octopus Week, when we release an octopus live for our guests at the Aquarium, we follow the octopus for about 20 minutes, but after that we just don’t know. They most likely move to an area with good food and a den space. After mating, females find a good den space to lay their eggs, and guard them until they hatch—shortly after the hatch, the females die. Males continue to move around, looking for another female to mate with, then die.

Senior Aquarist Kathryn & Diver Katie pose together before an octopus release tech rehearsal.
Senior Aquarist Kathryn & Diver Katie pose together before an octopus release tech rehearsal last year.

 

Q: Can you describe a day in the life of caring for an octopus at the Aquarium when it’s open to the public?
A: We start our day at 7am, beginning with an initial check of each animal and their life support systems. Once we’ve verified everything is working normally, we come up with an exhibit cleaning plan that includes all the exhibits in the area. We work on cleaning exhibits until the Aquarium opens, then we move on to food prep and care of our animals behind the scenes.

Our octopuses on display are fed twice a day by the interpretation staff so our visitors can learn more about these cool animals. The interpretation staff records every feeding, making notes on how the animal responded and how much food they ate. This allows us to make changes as needed to the menu for the health of the animal. After the Aquarium closes, we have a night biologist who continues to do rounds, checking on our animals and their life support systems until we come back the next day and start all over again.

Of course, some of this routine has changed since we’re currently closed to the public—but all the animals at the Aquarium, including octopuses, continue to receive excellent care and plenty of food!

Q: What might people be surprised to find out about giant Pacific octopuses?
A: Every octopus we’ve cared for here at the Aquarium has had a slightly different personality. Some are more active and curious, others more laid back and mellow. It’s fun getting to know them, and never easy to say goodbye!

Be sure to check back with us this Wednesday, when we’ll have a longer and more in-depth octopus release video to share with you—including footage shot underwater!

 

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