Feiro Marine Life Center preparing to say goodbye to Ursula the octopus as time for her release nears
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Volunteer Julie Janét cleans the inside of the octopus tank at Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles as Ursula, a giant Pacific octopus, swirls around her feet. — Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By Mark Swanson
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — Ursula, a giant Pacific octopus has been living at the Feiro Marine Life Center for over a year and a half, but now it’s time to go.

Ursula has been living at the center on City Pier since February 2014 when she was caught at Freshwater Bay.

While the 3 ˝-year-old octopus has enjoyed a steady diet of red rock crab, fish and all the attention she wants at Feiro, she is nearing the age at which her species mates.

Soon, Bob Campbell, Feiro’s facility coordinator, will return her to Freshwater Bay west of Port Angeles.

Feiro holds a special permit to capture and display octopuses in the education and research facility. It requires the center to return the creatures to the places where they are caught so they can breed.

Sometime between now and the end of the year, Campbell plans to pack Ursula into a cooler and take her for a ride on a boat back to Freshwater Bay.

Campbell said that he has done this a few times with octopuses over his 12 years at Feiro.

The creatures, he said, are usually slow to say goodbye.

They generally have to be teased out of the cooler. After that, they take anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to leave the vicinity of the boat, he said.

Once back in the water, Campbell expects Ursula will find a small cave or pile of rocks for a home in which to raise her brood.

When she finds a mate, she will receive a packet of sperm from him which will fertilize her eggs, probably more than 80,000 of them. Campbell said she will likely deposit the eggs in clusters, much like grapes, on the ceiling of her rocky home.

And then she’ll stay there to care for them for up to six months until they’re ready to hatch, blowing water over them and removing any algae or dirt that might accumulate.

She might also help them out of their egg sacs, Campbell said.

She won’t eat during the whole time that she guards her eggs.

Once they’ve all hatched, she’ll die.

Campbell expects that a Feiro crew soon will go out to Freshwater Bay to select another octopus.

This is the way it was when Ursula arrived at Feiro to replace an older octopus, Obecka.

Obecka, named for longtime Feiro volunteer Becky Jewell, who died in 2013, was released at Freshwater Bay when she reached breeding age.

If Ursula’s story is familiar, she was named in a Peninsula Daily News contest last February. Via an online poll, readers selected Ursula — also the name of an octopus in a Disney children’s movie, The Little Mermaid ­— over the names Cleopatra, Waynonna and Orleans.

Ursula has been an interesting friend at the marine center, said Campbell.

Although he acknowledges that “anthropomorphizing is a dangerous game,” he likes to think that she has been inquisitive and interested in the humans who come and go at the center.

“She seems to have likes and dislikes,” Campbell said.

Generally, he finds that she is less aggressive and somewhat understanding of his need to move her around when he cleans her tank.

Giant Pacific octopuses have keen eyesight, said Campbell, a former engineer who years ago moved to Port Angeles and earned a fisheries technology degree from Peninsula College.

He believes they can recognize their caretakers and tell them apart.

The “suckers” on their eight arms are also highly chemo-sensitive, allowing them to differentiate surfaces and even humans by “taste.”

Campbell said the octopuses are very tactile. When he goes to the tank to clean or take care of other needs, he spends some time stroking the octopus and touching her.

He’s always been careful to use only one arm around octopuses — just in case they decide to become aggressive and pull him in toward their central mouths, which resemble parrot beaks.

Does she enjoy the stroking?

“Well,” said Campbell, “she doesn’t resist it. She calms down.”

Have they become friends?

Campbell first said that he’s been working at allowing other people to spend time with Ursula and take care of her.

But, he added, saying it was at the risk of reading too much into her behavior, “Yes, I guess so.”

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Reporter Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5054, or mswanson@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 21. 2015 8:00PM
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