Otto is dead, but all else is wide awake


The first astonishing things I learned about the common octopus is how smart and social it can be. (Perhaps you’ve seen the video of one opening a lidded jar from the inside.) The next surprise was that it doesn’t live all that long—maybe a year or two.

When I stopped at the Wetlands Institute this year during our annual trip to Stone Harbor, New Jersey, I hoped to see Otto, the small octopus that was part of the organization’s teaching collection when we visited last year. He had danced around the glass for visitors who came to squint into his aquarium. He would contract into a ball, stretch and unfurl his arms, and dart through the water to follow us as we circled the glass. This pod-human interaction was curiously satisfying, like an unsolvable puzzle that I couldn’t keep from trying to work out anyway.

Alas, Otto has since transitioned to another plane, perhaps one where he’ll have 10 appendages instead of eight, or perhaps none.

The Wetlands celebrates the wild Atlantic coast and works to conserve the saltwater marsh and its residents. As a tourist destination, the institute could seem sort of barren if you were hoping for something like a zoo experience. But I go every year, mostly because of the elevated walkway they built out over the marsh—just high enough that the wind blows a little more noisily. High enough to keep the feet dry while I watch kayakers through water flanked by cordgrass.


Marsh, like the sea it holds hands with, is both constant and variable. Terrapin turtles, horseshoe crabs, nesting osprey, and egrets are among its little miracles. Look down into the shallow water and watch a blue crab scuttle sideways. Along the muddy edges of the water, fiddler crabs scurry in and out of their burrows, the males hauling their one oversized front claw like a bowling trophy they can’t put down. Red-winged blackbirds tweet and laughing gulls cackle. The longer you look out over the land and estuaries, the more aware you become of all the life buzzing underfoot, under water, and in the air.

So Otto was dead, but all else was busily alive and pursuing tactics to stay that way. Sometimes I mourn how long it took me to move from the nature-fearing mindset of my suburban youth to this current space of wonder. I’m just a hair wiser, but I feel wide-eyed with curiosity. Look at this place, this planet. Just look at it.