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Attention: the public octopus sex act has been cancelled

Seattle Aquarium cancels annual Valentine’s Day mating ritual, fearing cephalopods might turn to cannibalism.

“Sometimes they’ll ‘hang out’ with each other for an hour,” says the Seattle Aquarium’s Tim Carpenter. “Sometimes it’s 12 hours.” Credit: Michael Bentley via Flickr

It’s nearly Valentine’s Day, which means one thing: It’s time to show a little love for one of our most enigmatic local creatures from the deep — the giant Pacific octopus. Yes, it’s Octopus Week! Only this time without the sex.

Every February for the past decade, the Seattle Aquarium has hosted this celebration of cephalopods, and these 8-armed mollusks give us plenty to ooh and ah over: shape-shifting abilities that let them squeeze their bulbous bodies through pencil-thin crevices; the ability to instantly change the color and pattern of their skin to blend into their environs; and a surprising cunning and intelligence.

The highlight of Octopus Week is usually the “blind date,” in which the aquarists bring two of their octopuses together to mate in front of a large audience. (Really, I could not make this up.) Unfortunately, the octopus copulation has been cancelled this year — not because it was deemed too sordid an affair, but because staffers were worried that this year, one of the animals might get eaten instead.

About 10 years ago, the octopus’s carnivorous behavior made headlines when one of the Seattle Aquarium’s own was filmed killing a shark. That’s pretty fierce, sure, but resorting to cannibalism seems like a whole new level of murderous behavior. How does the aquarium know which animals are good candidates for their annual matchmaking services, and which ones might munch a potential lover? I spoke with Tim Carpenter, the Seattle Aquarium’s curator of fish and invertebrates, and here’s what I learned.

It turns out that octopuses are generally taciturn beings that spend most of their lives alone. For most of the year, if the aquarium has two octopuses on display they are kept separate, divided by a thick sheet of Plexiglas. It is only toward the end of an octopus’s life, at 3 to 4 years old, that he or she goes looking for company, and sex, for the first – and only – time. Octopuses are “terminal breeders”: Both males and females die shortly after the deed is done, although the females live just long enough to see her eggs hatch.

When the aquarists are searching for blind-date contenders, which they collect from central Puget Sound, the biggest thing they look for is size. Octopuses grow throughout their lives, usually reaching a peak of 30 to 110 pounds (the record is a whopping 600 pounds). “We’ve never seen an animal that was ready to mate that was smaller than 35 pounds,” Carpenter said. “Beyond that, we won’t even bother.”

This year, they did find a fitting bachelor: a 70-pound giant they named Kong. But while they found plenty of female octopuses, none of them were large enough. “Even if we put a 30- or 45-pound female out there, there’s a chance he would see her as food,” Carpenter explained. “We were looking for an animal of at least 60, 65 pounds.”

If they had found a good match, there would still be no guarantee that the two animals would hit it off. “A blind date is a blind date, and you never know how it’s going to go,” Carpenter said.

Some years, the two creatures hardly notice each other. Other years they embrace within minutes, arms intertwined, skin flushed as the male sticks his “special arm” (seriously, it’s called a hectocotylus) into what looks like the female’s head (but is actually her mantle, where her organs are). “Sometimes they’ll ‘hang out’ with each other for an hour,” Carpenter said. “Sometimes it’s 12 hours.”

This year, in lieu of watching two octopuses get it on, you can wander down to the aquarium and watch Kong swim around with a diver in the big Window on Washington Waters tank. The show starts at noon on Sunday, Valentine’s Day.

Sorry, Kong, probably not what you were hoping for. But you may still have a chance to get lucky later in the week, after you’re returned to your home in Puget Sound. Or maybe you’ll just slide back into bachelorhood, having spent your stint in the aquarium learning about the hazards of octopus love. Sure, it might have been a great Valentine’s Day, but it would have been your last.

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