The Octopus Escape Artist

Octopus in a tank, removes cork from a glass jar to retrieve a shrimp. Photo by Robert Sisson.

Here is another anecdote from the files of legendary NGS Director of Photography Bob Gilka, this one from a 1969 newsletter:

“For thirteen days Bob Sisson kept an octopus with a fifteen inch spread under close visual and camera observation. The purpose? To find out if it is true, as students of the animal have suggested, that the octopus is one of nature’s most accomplished escape artists. The result? Indeed the octopus is a tricky fellow…

To prove the point Bob built a plastic box, about the size of a cigar box, with a tight cover. The only opening was a half inch diameter hole in one end. He placed the octopus in the box, then put the box in a glass aquarium. Hours of patient watching finally were rewarded…First [the octopus] put one arm through the hole. With it the animal felt around outside the box as though exploring the area. Then, one by one, he put each of his other seven arms through the hole, not thin tip first, but in a kind of ‘elbow’ first fashion, so that actually the heavy part of the arm led the way through the hole. After the arms came the head, then the body, or mantle. The escape took one and one-quarter minutes.

Dr. Gil Voss, University of Miami marine biologist and the man who will write the Geographic article on the octopus, witnessed Bob’s experiment…and summed it up in one word: ‘Unbelievable!’”

The octopus is still amazing humans with its boneless yogic moves. Here is a link to a 2009 video posted on

And to see Sisson’s photos and read Dr. Voss’ story, “Shy Monster, the Octopus,” look for a copy of the December 1971 NGM. Your local library probably has one, or if you are interested in reading old Geographics, check out the “Buy, Sell, Trade” page on Collectors Corner. (Membership required, but it’s free!) Those who don’t want lots of old Geographics cluttering up the place might prefer the Complete National Geographic on DVD.

This entry was posted in National Geographic magazine, NGS History, Photography & Photographers. Bookmark the permalink.

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