Zoology honours student Preleen Govender watches Rocky the octopus seek out food from the apparatus she uses to test the extent to which octopuses find it through smell or sight. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad / African News Agency (ANA)
Zoology honours student Preleen Govender watches Rocky the octopus seek out food from the apparatus she uses to test the extent to which octopuses find it through smell or sight. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad / African News Agency (ANA)

Durban’s octopus teacher

By Duncan Guy Time of article published May 1, 2021

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Durban has its own octopus teacher story.

Only this one involves numerous octopuses that work in month-long shifts, coming in from the ocean to a tank at uShaka Sea World where zoology honours student Preleen Govender monitors them to find out more about their cognitive abilities.

For the past month, she has had Rocky, her second octopus. Yesterday, the institution’s research divers were scheduled to present her with another. Rocky, sex unknown, would have returned to his, or her, natural home in the ocean.

“Not to be punny,” Govender chirped, “but I do get attached to them. It’s going to be difficult once Rocky is gone. We’ve had this experience together, but at the end of the day, he’s going back to the ocean.”

Unlike the diver in the Oscar-winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, Govender’s experience with the seekat species, as many Afrikaans-speaking tourists at uShaka Sea World this week referred to Rocky’s type, does not end in their demise.

“They just go home,” she said. “Rocky will definitely be missed but at the end of the day he, or she, will be going back to nature, where they belong.”

The previous octopus Govender worked with had been sexed and was a male.

She said her octopuses had taught her a lot about how intelligent they could be.

“You always hear the story of how they can fit into such a small space. But to see it is mind blowing.”

She is amazed that something so intelligent is classified with less sophisticated creatures, such as mussels.

“What gave them the edge to have these ecological kind of superpowers?” Govender often ponders.

She has built an arrangement of pipes she calls a maze, that she can use to research the extent to which octopuses pick up the presence of food by sight or by smell.

Rocky swims as streamlined as a fish through the tank. In its den, it sees the world go by with a watchful eye, in a head with a bulky, almost elephant-like shape.

Govender’s hand enters the water on the surface of the tank to drop a shrimp in the maze and a tentacle shoots up to it, like a monkey’s hand reaching out to a branch.

She’s certain that in addition to any smells of food, Rocky recognises the red Lakshmi band around her wrist.

“On a good day Rocky will reach out for me. I don’t force it. The instinct is to want to take things back to the den, which is why I get tugged,” said Govender, adding that octopuses were curious by nature.

Rocky retreats to its den after consuming a couple of shrimps. Its colours change to a mottled brown.

Govender explained that this colouring was Rocky’s expression of feeling relaxed. A couple of damselfish in the tank pick this up and are relaxed about swimming near the den, confident that there is no danger of them being the next meal.

The octopuses in Govender’s study, like the one in the film, are of the species Octopus vulgaris and live in all habitats along South Africa’s coastline, from the kelp forests off the Western Cape to the coral sea off KZN.

The Independent on Saturday

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