The bond forged between Paige Hundley and Tako the Giant Pacific Octopus is rare, to put it mildly.
Hundley, an Animal Care Specialist II at OdySea, is Tako’s primary caretaker. She began working at the aquarium about a month after Tako arrived in 2020. The pair grew close during the pandemic when the aquarium was not open to guests.
“It was just us. We were able to create that bond. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we've created a very, very close bond,” Hundley said.
It’s unfortunate, as Hundley noted, because Tako is reaching her last stage in life, known as senescence.
In late June 2022, OdySea announced in a newsletter that Tako had laid “tens of thousands of eggs in long, braided strands that resemble grains of rice on strings.”
However, the news came with a caveat. Tako’s egg-laying signaled the “final phase of her life,” the aquarium newsletter noted.
As the octopus’ body prepared to bring life into the oceanic world, her own was beginning to end.
Senescence, Hundley explained, is when a female octopus enters the last stage of its life. They lay anywhere between 10,000 to 70,000 eggs, and spends the remainder of their lives taking care of them. That can be weeks to months, depending on the octopus’ health.
“She's gonna spend the rest of her life devoted to those eggs. It's the purest form of motherly love,” Hundley said.
Tako’s eggs are not going to be fertilized, but the octopus doesn’t know that, Hundley said.
“She's doing what her instincts are telling her to do, which are to lay these eggs,” Hundley said. “Just like a chicken is going to lay on an egg whether or not it's fertile, she's going to do the exact same thing.”
Normally, Hundley explained, Giant Pacific Octopuses become protective of their eggs. They stop eating, don’t want to be touched, and don’t want to interact with their caretakers. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case with Tako and Hundley. The octopus still tenderly touches Hundley with her suction cups and lets her caretaker get close to her eggs.
“It's rare indeed, too, at least at this stage in her life, in senescence, [to] be able to still be able to touch her as well as those eggs,” Hundley said.
Giant Pacific Octopuses have a short life span; just three to five years. It’s something Hundley was aware of, having worked with Giant Pacific Octopuses in the past.
“It is definitely the Catch-22 of what we do,” Hundley said. “We put all our love all of our attention all of everything into these animals to live their best life. But unfortunately, that means we get to be there for both the death, also the births. Also the big milestones. But that's just the circle of life.”
Throughout Tako’s life, Hundley and the team at OdySea have been able to learn about the cephalopod’s lifecycle, leading to some groundbreaking research.
“It started off as just trying to see what we could do to better the lives of our Giant Pacific Octopus. I had a theory, as well as the rest of the team, that their goal in life is to get as big as possible as fast as possible. And about 20 kilos is when a female is going to want to start to lay eggs. Now, if we can do that in a healthy way, to keep her on a positive growth trend, without letting her bloom in weight as quickly as she'd like to, the assumption was that then we could continue her life further,” Hundley explained.
The theory is proving true.
“After about June, we have found that to be extremely successful,” Hundley said. “She's actually now outlived some of the previous Octos and different things that we've had here for different facilities. So it is definitely working.”
The team will continue to track Tako’s weight and eating habits all the way to the end of her life. The goal is to continue that research with a new octopus and to share their learnings across the scientific community.
Among the OdySea community, news of Tako’s senescence is striking a chord. In a video posted on OdySea’s Facebook in mid-June, Hundley told Tako’s story and the reality that the octopus is entering the final stages of her life. As Hundley begins to tear up, comments of encouragement poured in.
“Was really taken with Tako when my husband and I visited a few weeks ago,” one person wrote. “Paige sending you a big hug as I know this was difficult for you to explain. May the wonderful memories of your time with Tako comfort you as you continue to care for her. Thank you for your care and dedication.”
Hundley’s dedication to Tako will continue all the way to the end.
“She's wormed her while her little suction cups into my heart further than I've met any animal before,” Hundley said. “And it is a benefit to be able to have that ultimate level of trust, that bond with her. I feel it's reciprocated back in the trust she's shown me with her eggs.”
Tako will remain in her exhibit until she's not healthy enough, according to the aquarium. It's where she's chosen to lay her eggs, proving she feels safe and comfortable in the environment.
IF YOU GO:
OdySea Aquarium [9500 E Via De Ventura, Suite A-100]
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.