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Octopus Adventures

TFK talks to Sy Montgomery about her new book, The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk

April 02, 2015
Keith Ellenbogen

Sy Montgomery observes an octopus in the shallow waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Non-fiction writer Sy Montgomery has traveled across the world and published many books for children and adults. But Montgomery says her biggest achievement is that “nobody I have studied has eaten me yet!”

Even though she says it with a laugh, she’s not kidding. In her work, Montgomery has come face-to-face with great white sharks, thousands of snakes, and silverback gorillas.

In her new book, The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk, she takes readers underwater off the islands of Moorea and Tahiti to follow an exciting journey led by octopus researchers. The pages are filled with underwater photos that explore these fascinating creatures, which can shoot ink, change color, and squeeze themselves through tiny holes. They are also exceptionally smart. “What fascinates me about them is that we’re so different, and yet their intelligence is in many ways similar to our own,” she told TFK. “You could not find a space alien stranger, more different from us than an octopus, but here it is right on our planet, even living in shallow water.”

Here, Montgomery tells TFK why she writes about animals and what she learned on her latest adventure. The book will hit stores in May.

TIME FOR KIDS:

When did you first develop a love for animals?

MONTGOMERY: 

I’ve always loved animals. I don’t remember this, but before I was two years old, my parents took me to Frankfurt Zoo and lost track of me for a minute and the next thing they knew I was in the hippo pens with the hippos. I learned very early on that if you want to watch animals, you need to stay still and not frighten them. There’s no animal that you can’t watch, even if it’s just sleeping, and learn something new. 

 

Sy Montgomery gets to know a Peregrine falcon.

Keith Ellenbogen
Sy Montgomery gets to know a Peregrine falcon.

TFK:

Did you always want to write about animals?

MONTGOMERY: 

I thought as a child that I wanted to be a veterinarian until I started to read. And in the 1960s, newspapers were filled with stories about animals on the verge of extinction. When I learned that over-hunting, pollution, deforestation, and human overpopulation were pushing animals off the planet and they could go extinct just like the dinosaurs, I realized I might be able to help more animals as a writer than a veterinarian. By writing I hoped that I might change others’ lives.

TFK:

Why did you choose to write books for children?

MONTGOMERY: 

Writing for kids, I think, is where it’s at as far as changing the world is concerned. Kids know they can make a difference. 

TFK:

I read that you are a “naturalist.” What does that mean?

MONTGOMERY: 

I’m a student of nature. That’s all. Anyone can be a naturalist. You don’t graduate with a degree in being a naturalist and you don’t get to carry a little card, there’s no certification for it. Most kids are naturalists, too, and don’t even know it.

TFK:

How does one go about becoming a science or animal writer like you?

MONTGOMERY: 

You can find squirrels, birds, or worms in your own backyard and find out stuff about them no one else has. And so what if someone else has done a study? They haven’t done a study on what they’re doing in your yard, which could be totally different than what a scientist found out they were doing in his or her study area.

TFK:

What makes the octopus such a special animal?

MONTGOMERY: 

This animal can pour its body through a hole the size of a walnut, can change color and shape, can shoot ink, has venom and a beak like a parrot, and yet, you can have a relationship with this animal. This animal is curious about you.

TFK:

Was it hard to report underwater?

MONTGOMERY: 

Studying things underwater has a huge level of difficulty. That’s what makes it so fun. I had a dive slate, which is a piece of plastic that you write on it with a regular pencil. It’s only one sheet and water distorts things pretty badly, so you can’t write in little tiny letters because you won’t be able to see them. Your notebook can float away, so you have to tether it to you, but that became one more thing that could get tangled in the awful pinecone-y stuff that kept whacking us in the face!

A photo from "The Octopus Scientists."

Keith Ellenbogen
A photo from "The Octopus Scientists."

TFK:

In the book, the team of octopus researchers sometimes had trouble finding octopuses. What was that like?

MONTGOMERY: 

Well, here was this team of octopus experts gathered from around the world and it faced challenges just finding the animals! But we had a lot of fun in all those challenging times. One thing a lot of people ask me about writing or field studies is, “Is it hard?” Yes, it’s hard, and that’s what makes it fun. And here are these experts who totally knew what they were doing and were very good at what they were doing, and they found this very hard. But they loved it! And that’s why they did it.

TFK:

What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?

MONTGOMERY: 

From my entire career of reporting and writing, [my biggest takeaway] is that animals are fascinating individuals who love their lives and are so worthy of our study, respect, and our reverence. 


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