Biologist David Scheel with the day octopus he raised in his living room. Photo courtesy Passion Planet Ltd/Ernie Kovacs.
David Scheel is a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, and he’s been studying octopuses for more than 25 years. Recently, he put an aquarium in his living room and raised a pet octopus that the family named Heidi. In 2019, PBS released the documentary Octopus: Making Contact, which chronicled the interactions in the Scheel household as the family observed and bonded with Heidi. As told to and edited by Alexander Deedy
How did you first get interested in octopuses and why are they a fascinating creature for you?
Well, I’ve always liked octopuses. What’s not to like, right? They’re kind of inherently interesting creatures. I have also spent time studying African lions, bats, rodents, killer whales, seals, seabirds, and crabs, among other animals. They’ve all been interesting. Over the years, the octopus has sort of been constant while work with the others has just come and gone.
So how did this idea come about to live with an octopus in your living room?
I’ve always been interested in aquariums and closed ecosystems. So it was always kind of in the back of my mind that it’d be neat to have an octopus in my house. But it’s a big undertaking, and I had enough going on that I didn’t ever do it. Then this film company approached me and said they were looking for a scientist who might be interested in that. That kind of got us over some of the hurdles and just inertia of not doing it.
Tell me a little about what it was like living with Heidi?
She was sweet. I used to get up in the morning and come downstairs and drink my morning tea while she was waking up. It’s kind of nice to sit there first thing in the morning and watch an underwater world. I think everyone who works with octopuses bonds with them to some extent. It’s one of the things that makes octopuses so interesting. I’d come home at the end of the day, and we’d have some time playing, watching her, taking care of the tank, and feeding.
How do you play with an octopus?
I’d put a heavy rubber ball, like really dense rubber ball, on a string. And then she could chase the ball. So it was a lot of fun to try and play keep-away with her. Then when she got a little bigger and had really long arms, it didn’t take very long before I’d lose that particular game. She’d grab ahold of it.
What’s some of the research you do with octopuses in Alaska and why are they an important part of the ecosystem?
The giant Pacific octopus lives in Alaska waters, and that’s the most commonly displayed octopus species that people are going to see in public aquariums. It’s the largest species in the world, and it’s also a pretty important subsistence food for Alaska Natives in coastal communities. So that makes it fairly interesting. It’s a big animal, so they’re important in the ecosystem. They eat a lot of crabs and scallops and they are eaten by a diverse array of other animals, including seals and sea lions and sea otters and so on and so forth. So, it’s culturally and biologically an important animal.
That’s fascinating. I actually had no idea that Alaska Natives would harvest and eat octopuses as subsistence food.
It’s such a big species—a lot of the subsistence intertidal foods are pretty small. You might get a really big geoduck that weighs a pound, but mostly you’ve got to pick up a lot of clams to get a meal. But an octopus, you get one octopus and you might get five or 10 pounds of meat out of it. So it’s not an insubstantial amount of food.