The depths of the Pacific Ocean, native home to many of the octopuses that we encounter in the aquarium profiled by Sy Montgomery in this book, is about as alien an environment as I can imagine while still being on the same planet. Montgomery doesn’t restrict herself to the octopuses in the tanks in her exploration of aquatic life, and goes scuba diving to see the cephalopods and their dens in the wild.
Montgomery is an interesting author for exploring another world as she does an excellent job of humanizing an animal as different as an octopus, but her writing does tend toward the florid. She not only writes about how the skin is velvety smooth despite a layer of “slime” coating the animals, but she also seems to ascribe more intent than can be reasonably inferred from a curled tentacle or a probing sucker; there’s an element of wishful thinking, as though she wants her interactions with the octopuses to be as meaningful for the creatures as it was for her. I don’t doubt that a creature of its intelligence could bond with its caregivers, only that there’s not enough of the scientific about the descriptions to give the inferences weight.
And man, for a book about octopuses Montgomery cannot focus on the octopuses. Her writing about the octopuses is amazing, but she spends so much time talking about the experience of learning to scuba dive and the difficulties she had in diving. Do not care. If you want to spend a couple paragraphs sure, but I didn’t buy this book to learn about valsalva maneuvers. Same with the visitor comments at the aquarium. Don’t care what randos have to say about octopuses, I care what EXPERTS can tell me. The other animals at the aquarium were also written about in a weird limbo, where the author wants to add details but not on any specific animal, so it’s a book that’s 60% octopus, and then 10% snake, 10% turtle, 20% diving. I wanted Oliver Sacks for cephalopods, which is a tall order, but it’s hard not to be disappointed. Our tentacled overlords deserve better.