Dominic Sivitilli is featured in this Seattle Met Article "The Octopus from Outer Space"
The Octopus from Outer Space
Seattle’s most beguiling sea creatures were once feared and hunted—and even wrestled—for sport. But new research and a few surprising encounters are changing how we view them. A story in eight parts.
By James Ross Gardner 12/2/2019 at 8:00am Published in the December 2019 issue of Seattle Met
ominic Sivitilli is 45 feet below the surface off the west coast of San Juan Island in 2017 when his scuba diving partner waves him over. It’s been a long day, and the University of Washington grad student has abandoned hope in his search for invertebrate specimens to bring back to nearby Friday Harbor Laboratories, where he’s studying for the summer. A fellow diver signaling him, though, means something of interest must lurk below. A sea urchin, perhaps. Maybe a sun starfish. Dominic swims over and what he sees looks like a big, breathing piece of green…kelp. With eyes. A giant Pacific octopus sits camouflaged on the seafloor, its skin color changed to blend with the surroundings. Dominic coaxes the creature into a mesh bag, then into a cooler, and transports it back to Friday Harbor.
Once released into a lab tank, the animal goes electric with activity, like someone’s flipped a switch. About five feet long from arm tip to arm tip, the female octopus has reverted to her default color, a ruddy auburn, and she’s swimming with abandon. Dominic, a behavioral neuroscience PhD candidate, will come to identify this burst as a manifestation of her insatiable curiosity. Every time someone walks into the lab, the octopus swims in that direction, checking the person out.
As night falls after a day of diving, transporting the octopus, and securing the tank (octopuses are notorious escape artists), Dominic’s exhausted. Tidying up the darkened lab for the evening, he realizes he’s being watched. Despite the evolutionary distance—the last common ancestor of humans and octopuses lived half a billion years ago—he senses a strange kinship, that this specimen is as curious about him as he is of her.
He names her Gaia, the personification of earth in Greek myth, and over the next six weeks he gets to know her as well as a human can know a creature with no spine, no bones even, and nine brains—one in the head and one in each of its eight limbs.
Gaia’s decentralized nervous system, and how she moves and makes decisions, will help Dominic arrive at an idea, one he’ll share two years later at a NASA-sponsored conference for astrobiologists—researchers who study the possibility of life on other planets. If alien life does exist out there in the cosmos, he argues, it behooves us to understand alternative modes of intelligence like that of octopuses.
With his interest in Gaia, Dominic joins a long legacy of people in the Pacific Northwest drawn to the species, from researchers like himself, to sea captains, fishermen, athletes, and artists. Many of them would likely recognize his cosmic notion.
It’s radical until you take into account just how otherworldly the animals truly are. Or when you consider how humans in the Pacific Northwest have experienced the creature over the past century.
Read the entire article here.