The Octopus Farm

Matilda is the largest one, but Matilda is not an octopus. She used to be one, a sleek, slippery body, eight legs, and a bulbous head and shifty eyes. But today, Matilda is a septapus. According to sources, Matilda came to the farm that way—an octopus missing the one critical component that makes them so-named: the eighth leg. She’d been in some kind of fishing accident, Erin tells us, nodding over to her friend in the bucket, and is currently on schedule to regrow that critical leg. She’ll be a proper octopus—all eight legs, suckers, tentacles, and all—in no time.

We see Matilda, her toys, and her bucket, from a distance. As we approach her, we can see that she’s in a five-foot-deep blue bucket with a two-foot long diameter, big enough so she swim around and deep enough that she can dive and hide if she wants to. Sometimes, she pops up and sprays her visitors on the arms and faces—not in a malicious way, necessarily, but more in a fun, lighthearted way. A hello, really. A kind of “I see you” acknowledgement from one very different species to another. She also plays with balls, and rubber duckies, and little wrist-sized colorful rings that children like to chew on when their teeth are coming in. All of these toys float around on the bubbly surface of the water, buoyant with the waves she makes as she skims and slides through the water.

Submerged in the water is another, smaller blue bucket, one with a side cut out and replaced with netted wire. Erin, the researcher on staff at the Kanaloa Octopus Farm, just outside the black lava town of Kona, Hawaii, tells us to take a closer look—there’s somebody else inside. We can’t see him well, but from what we can see, we can tell that it’s an octopus, that it’s about half the size of Matilda, and that its body is kind of squished up against the side, hemming toward the lady in the tank.

“She’s on a chaperoned date right now,” Erin, who is no older than twenty-five and who left her cushy job as an entertainment lawyer to pursue octopus farming, tells us. She has tattoos on her legs and she’s wearing dusty sandals. An older woman who has just moseyed up to the group asks why.

“Well,” Erin says, “because we’re trying to breed them, but she might eat him.” There are two other big blue buckets next to hers—one filled with a cranky old red-colored lady named Mae West and another one named Susie Q. They’re not on dates at the moment.

Word on the street is that female octopuses will eat potential mates who don’t fit their bill—and we don’t know yet if Matilda will take to this one. At the moment, she does have one leg suckered to the side of the cage—and appears interested—but Erin warns us that the appearance of interest doesn’t always mean a match. They have to be very careful around here. Matilda could even crawl out of her bucket if she wanted to, but so far, she seems pretty comfortable. Only at night do the workers cover them up and secure them inside with a lid that has a metal latch on it.

The funniest thing so far is that Erin refers to these animals as “ladies,” and to the group of male octopuses who just arrived last week as “male suitors.” They are currently testing the waters, so to speak, to see who would like to mate with whom—and they will go back to the private collector who loaned them to the farm once they “meet” all the ladies. “Things can get pretty crazy around here,” Erin says, laughing. Mating season—or, as she calls it, dating season, is particularly important, because although a male can reproduce many times during his lifespan, a female cephalopod will only breed once after starving herself for the 30 days prior to laying her eggs—and then she will die within 48 hours.

In just the half-hour that we’ve been here, taking this tour, hearing the loving ways in which the researchers and workers talk about their “residents,” I’ve fallen head over heels for these ladies, watching them slink around in their buckets, allowing them to wrap their sleek arms around my own, waiting to see if they’d bat a ball around or a rubber ducky. Mimi, my grandma-in-law, walks around asking a hundred questions, having just read and adored Sy Montgomery’s book on octopus consciousness. I’m impressed by her knowledge.

We learn that these animals are much like our own beloved cats and dogs—that they, like us, are taking us in, learning about us when they touch us, watch us with their sideways eyeballs, try to figure out who is safe and who is threatening. As individuals, they have quirks, personalities, and tastes: one will only play with a Rubix cube, we learn, and another will only play with red toys. As a species, they are incredibly sensitive to vibration and pitch, and will often respond dramatically to weather patterns, movement outside their tanks, or construction work. Erin tells us a quick story about how, during some recent demolition work next door, the octopuses all starting hiding at the bottom of their buckets when they would hear the trunks pull up in the mornings—because they knew the tools would start revving up soon.

I’m filled with love and admiration for these animals—until we get to the end of the tour.

“Does anyone know why this place exists?” Erin says, gesturing around to the three tanks outside and the two tanks inside the one-room building.

Answers abound—to study these marvelous creatures, to enjoy their beauty and mystery, to learn from them and find better ways to protect them in the wild?

Erin simply shakes her head. Octopuses are delicate creatures—and because their reproductive habits so precarious and so once-in-a-lifetime, they get very overfished in the wild. People love to eat calamari when they’re on vacation in Hawaii.

So we’re all here, she admits, to find a way to sustainably farm and eat them.

My heart lurches. Matilda? Mae West? Susie Q? Something doesn’t compute for me. These beautiful, friendly, curious creatures and their babies are only here to eventually end up on someone’s plate at a Hawaiian-themed restaurant near a hotel chain near downtown Kona? These animals she has compared to the cats and dogs we love and cherish and treat like family? These “ladies,” and their “dates,” are nothing more than science experiments?

Erin smiles, noticing a round of horrified faces and wide-eyed tourists who’ve come here to celebrate these cephalopods. “The truth is that yield has gone down 50% in the last year,” she tells us, “and it’s nearly impossible to implement new restrictions on fishing practices here on the islands. There are no caps, no license laws, no paperwork….our hope is to create an alternative where we can reproduce octopus meat in a more sustainable way.”

The jubilation felt among the participants on the tour suddenly feels jarringly wrong. I think about all the times I’ve eaten—and loved every bit of—calamari while on vacation or while dining at fancy restaurants at home. I think about the crunchy tentacles, the way the batter gets into their little suckers and bodies, the chewy, warm texture inside. I think about places I’ve had calamari where we only get the very nondescript fried circles so that no diner feels the discomfort of clearly eating an animal.

Then I look at the buckets again, and at the dating ritual happening between Matilda and the poor schmuck inside the cage (who may or may not be eaten).

I look out onto the vastness and blueness of the Pacific Ocean, and the long horizon of Kona, where you can see for miles.

I see the small, old building where this farming experiment is taking place, and I think of the $22 I just spent so I could meet some octopuses.

And then, later that night, while dining with my family at The Fish Hopper, the top-rated seafood restaurant in Hawaii, known exclusively for their poke nachos, I see plates and plates of calamari being delivered to eager customers, and I can’t help but wonder: If more of us knew what it took to breed an octopus, if more of us took the time to learn about and meet them, would anything change?

The server approaches us and places down a piping-hot plate of fried calamari. Mimi has ordered it for the table.

Article and photographs by Kristin Winet.

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