As I enter the gloomy maze, the first thing that strikes me is the melody: a symphony of electronic sounds, soothing, at the same time mystical. Just as you imagine the soundtrack for Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. The hallway indeed is as narrow as a submarine’s. Again and again I have to push past other people: adults and children who are too engaged in their surroundings to notice me.

Behind one of the corridors the space expands Рthis is the destination. I can see it cowering in the corner, so I stop right in front of the glass pane. Just at that moment, it looks at me. Then it does something I did not expect: It spreads its arms, moving towards me. I feel like suddenly a rock is slipping to the bottom of my stomach. Eight foot are spanning in front of me.  If the pane was not there, I would run away.

The closer it gets, the more the color of its wrinkled skin is changing, from a pale pink to a deep red: it is excited. I’m standing rooted to the spot. The way it stares at me, makes me believe that behind the boneless forehead exists a consciousness. Now it has reached the pane, now it seems appropriate to step up and reach out my hand. Instead, to be professional, I point the camera at it, to capture every of its moves. It pauses for a moment, then it turns away, disappointed, as I think. The moment is over.

“Strange. You are not the first visitor today, and certainly not the first person with a camera. Probably it likes your shirt “, says Martin Hansel who is standing right next to me. He has observed the scenario. He is the Displays Curator at the Sea Life aquarium in Berlin and has agreed to personally introduce me to the centerpiece of the current exhibition: a Giant Pacific Octopus, which has no name, and is referred to by the staff only as GPO for short. It was captured as a pup off the coast of Canada about a year ago and immediately imported to Germany.

While I thoughtfully look down at my black-green striped shirt, Hansel opens the door next to the water tank. We climb up on a narrow staircase until we stand hip-high at the water’s edge. “When keeping an octopus, the lid must be properly shut. They are real escape artists“, says the biologist. And indeed, as soon as he lifts the lid, the octopus is swimming up to us, tentacles forward looking like an opened umbrella from below. Only that this umbrella is covered with suckers and at in its center flashes a sharp beak.

Already the first tentacles reach out of the water and wind their way cautiously along the edge. It seems to me as if they had a life of their own. With the tip of my index finger I touch one of the suckers and what else would I expect it sucks immediately on to me, but so quickly and so tightly that I jump and pull my finger right back with a loud smack!


Hansel seems to be used to this effect: he holds out not only his fingers, but the whole arm. Tentacle by tentacle stands out from the water and wraps around it. A fishy smell greets me. It makes me think of the seafood spaghetti at an Italian restaurant. What I see reminds me of scenes from an old horror movie in which a ship gets wrapped and drawn under water by huge, writhing tentacles.

I fear Hansel’s arm will soon suffer the same fate. But whenever there are too many tentacles attached, he grabs them and pulls them off one by one. The quickly detaching suckers make a noise like pulling off a shower mat. As soon as Hansel has deducted the tentacles, they come crawling back. That’s what all octopuses do, including the smaller ones. I do not think it is aggression, rather curiosity“, says Hansel, who admits that he likes working with the animals, because they “also interact, when you are not feeding them.”


I remember the words of a respected Italian zoologist who I had interviewed some time ago. “Octopus are known for their ability to learn and memorize.¬† They show play behavior and even a sort of personality,” Anna Di Cosmo had said. Their brain had been compared to a mammal’s for the neuro-architecture and functional complexity. A writing on the walls at the Sea Life Aquarium says: The octopus is smart like a dog.However, I do not believe that the scientist was referring to such a highly developed mammal. Certain is: In the wild, octopuses can adapt their behavior, use tools or mimic other animals. According to Di Cosmo this is an indication that they possess¬† consciousness and are capable of perceiving pain. After what I have seen, I believe it. However, I wonder how the animal perceives living in captivity.

My thoughts end abruptly. Right in front of my eyes something so impressive and unexpected is happening that my jaw drops open. Martin Hansel, who until now has played tentacle-on, tentacleoff” with the kraken, somehow managed to reach his hand towards its forehead and started to scratch it. All of a sudden, the tentacles stop grabbing and the octopus is holding still, more even, it pulls itself further towards the scratching hand. Obviously, it is enjoying it. Hansel, who noticed my amazement, says to confirm: Yes, octopus like getting their head scratched.” Now I’m flabbergasted. Wait, what was that about the dog?

Here is the video: