Octopuses find love at long last

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

ANCHORAGE It looks like J-1 is in love.

After meeting the very fetching and slightly younger Aurora, he changed color and his eight arms became intertwined with hers. Then, the two retreated to a secluded corner to get to know each other better.

We're talking about giant Pacific octopuses here.

Aquarists at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward introduced the 5-year-old J-1 to Aurora on Tuesday morning. The two really hit it off. Spermatophores were seen hanging from J-1's siphon.

''We really were not sure he had it in him,'' SeaLife Center aquarium curator Richard Hocking said Wednesday.

Love almost passed J-1 by. At 5 years of age and 52 pounds, he's reaching the end of the line for his species, the largest octopus in the world. J-1 is in a period of decline that occurs before octopus die. His skin is eroding. His suckers have divots.

''He's not as strong as he used to be,'' said aquarist Deanna Trobaugh.

With so little time left, J-1 wasn't going to let the sweet Aurora slip through his eight octopus arms. While she had to make the first move, he caught on quickly, especially for an octopus who was collected on a beach near Seldovia in 1999 when he was about the size of a quarter and has lived the bachelor life since.

To get the two together, aquarium staff put Aurora in a plastic bag and then gently poured her into J-1's 3,600-gallon exhibit tank. She sank to the bottom of the tank and then made the first move, going over to J-1, who was hanging on a rock wall.

She reached out an arm and touched him. Only then did he wake up to the fact he had company. Contact made, she went back to her corner of the tank. J-1, dispelling water from his siphon to get quickly across the tank, was in hot pursuit.

''They both were gripping the back wall of the tank. He just about covered her completely,'' Hocking said.

The two remained intertwined for about eight hours. It's possible that during that time when J-1 was exploring Aurora's mantle with his many suckered arms that he passed his sperm packet to her, Hocking said.

What the aquarium staff does know is that when they separated, J-1 flashed some colors, turning almost white and then dark red.

''It looks like instinct took over during that encounter and they did what they were supposed to do,'' Hocking said.

If Aurora did get cozy with J-1 and accept his spermato-phores, or sperm packet, which is delivered from the only arm without suckers, she will produce anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 eggs, which when hatched will look like little squid.

''It is just possible, we may see several thousand fertile eggs soon,'' Hocking said. ''We can only wait now and see what nature does.''

If with many, many children, Aurora who was about the size of a grapefruit when she was found in 2002 living inside an old tire in front of the Sea-Life Center will stop eating while she tends her eggs. She will weaken and die soon after they hatch.

Hocking said it seemed only right to give J-1 a chance to do what octopuses normally do before he dies.

In his younger days, J-1 was an easygoing sort who did not try to escape his tank a lot, Hocking said. When aquarium staff would come by to clean, the octopus would reach out and grab hold of someone's arm or a window cleaning tool.

''The goal for this was to let him lead a full life,'' Hocking said.

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