Eleanora dives back into the wild

PT aquarium releases Giant Pacific Octopus

Posted 9/4/19

Ali Redman, aquarist at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, peered over a bucket of water containing an octopus in a bag, looking for signs of ink.

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Eleanora dives back into the wild

PT aquarium releases Giant Pacific Octopus

Posted

Ali Redman, aquarist at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, peered over a bucket of water containing an octopus in a bag, looking for signs of ink.

Inside the cool, dark aquarium on the end of the dock at Fort Worden, water pumping through tanks was the only background noise in the tense moments of monitoring as the octopus was secured in a mesh diving bag inside the bucket, moments before she was transferred outside for release.

This isn’t just any octopus. This is the Giant Pacific Octopus named Eleanora, that has lived at the Science Center for nearly a year now, quadrupling in size, strength and smarts during her time in the kelp forest tank.

Port Townsendites have come to know Eleanora well, visiting her tank on the weekends, hoping for a glimpse of her long graceful tentacles coming out of the rock cave she chose to nap in. But none have come to know Eleanora as well as Redman, who has fostered a relationship with the giant cephalopod through enrichment play sessions, feeding and caretaking.

“We’re watching now for any ink,” Redman said, as she secured Eleanora in the mesh diving bag. “She’s in a defensive position, her suckers are out and she’s in a ball.”

Eleanora’s tentacles whirled around in the bag. Redman, dressed in her wetsuit in preparation for guiding Eleanora in the bag into the water, took a step back and a shaky breath.

“This is the part that I don’t like,” she said, going out of the dim aquarium into the sunny afternoon to check on the location of the two divers, who would take Eleanora to a den they hope she will choose to live in, in the ocean outside of the aquarium dock.

Redman marries ocean conservation and animal husbandry in her job as aquarist at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, educating visitors about the biology and health of the Salish Sea while also caring for hundreds of different marine species, from octopus to starfish to abalone.

“Right now I’m overwhelmed by the great fear of what’s going to happen when I try to put Eleanora in a bag,” she said as she prepared to pull the octopus from her aquarium tank in a bucket. “We’re hoping to move her in a way that’s calm enough that she likes where we put her and stays there.”

But after running her tentacles around the mesh bag for a while, curious about the new sensation, Eleanora did not ink, which would have been a clear sign of distress.

HOW TO MOVE AN OCTOPUS

Eleanora was brought to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center last September. She was thought to be just one or two years old at the time.

The Giant Pacific Octopus is a species that is native to the Pacific Ocean and is commonly found in the Puget Sound. According to National Geographic, the Giant Pacific Octopus grows bigger and lives longer than any other octopus species. The record size of one of these native octopuses was 30 feet across and more than 600 pounds. Giant Pacific Octopuses gain 1% to 2% of their body weight every day.

Eleanora was brought to the PTMSC to be part of a film that Florian Graner, the underwater documentarian of Sealife Productions, is working on. Graner, like Redman, has gotten to know Eleanora well as he filmed her interactions with humans and with himself.

After spending one year at the aquarium, Eleanora had grown to maturity. Giant Pacific Octopuses usually only live for about five years.

“We’ve seen indicators suggesting that she has reached maturity,” Redman said. “She was the size of a pomelo (large grapefruit) when she got here. Her half arm span was 2 feet. Now it’s 7 and a half feet.”

Her maturity was a clear sign that it was time to release Eleanora back into the wild, where she will spend the rest of her adult life, hopefully mating and producing offspring.

But despite spending a year in an aquarium and interacting with humans on a daily basis, Eleanora is still a wild animal. Transferring a wild octopus back into the ocean is no small task.

The first task was choosing a location for Eleanora to possibly live. To do this, Graner and another diver took the rock culvert from Eleanora’s tank and placed it in a spot on the ocean floor that was relatively free from predators (otters eat octopus) and where Eleanora’s favorite food, Dungeness crab, were plentiful.

If they chose a good spot, it was possible that Eleanora would stay there, making it easy for Graner to come back and film her living in the wild.

To transfer the giant cephalopod, Redman replaced her missing culvert with the bucket in her tank. Eleanora, a fan of dark, cozy hiding places, immediately curled up in the bucket, making it easy for Redman to pull her out of the tank. She then poured Eleanora out into a larger bucket, filled with water and two mesh diving bags, one that pulled snugly around Eleanora’s eight-legged body, and another that went around the inside bag and would make it easy for the divers to transfer.

Redman then suited up in flippers and snorkeling gear and got in the water at the dock as two PTMSC interns lowered the bucket into the water.

Redman swam with Eleanora in the bag to meet up with Graner and another diver, who took her to the culvert they had placed on the seafloor.

“The whole thing couldn’t have worked any better,” Graner said. “She didn’t startle in the bag. She was just hanging in there like a sack of potatoes, she’s so used to interacting with us. Her curiosity of investigating things was apparent as soon as I opened the bag.”

On the ocean floor, Graner opened the bag that held Eleanora and she snaked out one tentacle at a time.

She was relaxed enough during the process that she carried a Dungeness crab she had been hanging onto from lunchtime the entire way, finally pulling it out to snack on when she snuggled up into her culvert in the sea. She immediately found another crab near the culvert and caught it, snarfing it down, Graner said.

“When I opened the bag, she just went to me and let me stroke her,” Graner said. “I just gently nudged her to her den site. I knew there were plenty of crabs there, too.”

For Redman, the smoothness of the transition was a relief.

“A big part of what I do is balancing animal husbandry with the reason they’re here in the aquarium in the first place,” Redman said. “There’s a delicate tipping point where the reasons they’re here are suddenly not enough to outweigh their need to be in the wild.”

EIGHT-LEGGED STAR

The day after Eleanora’s release, Graner dove back down to the seafloor and found Eleanora in her culvert, an exciting prospect for the future of his film.

Graner’s underwater production company, Sealife Productions, which is known for stunning footage of grey whales, orcas and all manner of sea life, is working with a contract from Germany’s Studio Hamburg.

With German producer Simon Riedel, Graner is documenting several Giant Pacific Octopus living in the wild, while weaving in the story of Eleanora and how she has interacted with humans at the aquarium.

“I learned a lot through Ellie that I never got in the wild,” Graner said. “Her staying in her culvert was the ideal outcome that we could’ve hoped for.”

Pairing up with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center was imperative, Graner said, since they were the only aquarium in the area that would release the octopus back into the wild.

“From our point of view, there’s not a lot of documentation of what happens to Giant Pacific Octopuses after release,” Redman said.

The film, which Graner said will be released in Germany as part of Studio Hamburg’s “Doclights” which is a series of nonfiction public programming, will also be shown in America. He hopes to go into post-production in February of 2020, and hopefully submit the film to the Port Townsend Film Festival for 2021.

Graner, Redman and Eleanora play a large part in the film, as Graner would film their “enrichment sessions,” showing how Eleanora solved puzzles, played with toys, and devoured her favorite treat, Dungeness crab.

“It’s clear when you spend time with an octopus and it’s positive that she begins to recognize our faces and how we walk and talk,” Graner said. “I could see from filming that she clearly recognized Ali from quite a distance, and she did with me as well.”

That squares with naturalist Sy Montgomery’s reporting in “The Soul of an Octopus,” the 2016 book that revolutionized the public’s understanding of the intelligence and personality of octopuses.

Eleanora may be too busy catching crab to attend the premiere of the film, but she played an important role in the film and in the scientific discovery of how Giant Pacific Octopuses adjust from being in an aquarium to being in the wild.

“In the end, she was directing the show much more than we did,” Graner said.

While visitors to the PTMSC aquarium might be disappointed to find Eleanora no longer in its tank, they can take heart from the fact that they will be able to see Eleanora on the big screen. Not only that, but look closer at the tanks in the aquarium and visitors will see that PTMSC is hosting another, much smaller, octopus.

For Redman, despite the stress of the release day, sending Eleanora out into the wild was a bittersweet feeling.

“It’s exciting to have her go out,” she said. “It was the right time to let her go. I don’t think she would have continued to thrive here.”

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Tom Camfield

Score one for Mother Nature's more-innocent children, and may Eleanora survive our warming oceans.

Monday, September 9