The ‘Mother of the Year’ Who Starved for 53 Months

In 2014, an octopus made headlines for starving herself while protecting her eggs. Why does she remind me of my mom?

Sketch of a pink octopus with flecks of other colors
Erik Carter / The Atlantic

Years ago, when I was in the seventh grade, an octopus sailed off the seafloor and secured herself to a rocky outcropping off the coast of California. She was nearly a mile below the surface, thousands of feet past any tendrils of sun. But in the bright beams of a submarine, the octopus’s edges glowed the reddish purple of a salted Japanese plum.

I know about the purple octopus because a remotely operated submersible watched her glide toward the cliff. The sub, which hailed from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, had come to observe not just one octopus but the many Graneledone boreopacifica like her known to cling to this sea cliff. But she was the only one there, moving slowly toward the rock.

When the researchers returned a little more than a month later, they found the same octopus—they could tell by the scars—latched onto the side of the outcropping, her arms coiled around her like suckered fiddlehead ferns, sealing in a newly laid clutch of eggs. The sub returned again and again to visit the mother octopus, who remained frozen in her vigil. She did not move. She did not eat. She shrank. Each visit found her paler, as if she had been dipped in milk. The sub kept returning, seeing the octopus 18 times over the course of four and a half years, until one day it arrived to find the octopus gone. She had left behind a silhouette in tattered egg capsules still clinging to the rock like deflated balloons. This, the scientists understood, was a sign that her eggs had hatched successfully, freeing the mother octopus to die. Most mother octopuses lay a single set of eggs in a lifetime and die after their brood hatches.

The scientists who observed the octopus called her four-and-a-half-year brooding period the longest on record for any animal. In other words, no other creature on Earth had held its eggs close to its body and protected them for as long as she did; a story in Reuters called her a “strong contender” for the “‘mother of the year’ in the animal kingdom.” More than anything, I wanted to know why the octopus, with her big and alien brain, did not eat while she brooded her eggs. I couldn’t imagine how a creature with a consciousness would starve for four and a half years without something like hope. What I mean to say is: I wanted to know whether she ever regretted it.

According to my mother, I first noticed my body sometime in middle school, one day in the kitchen. She says I walked in and approached her, that I pulled up my shirt to expose my stomach and told her I was fat. She says this conversation is still etched into her memory, after all these years.

My mother, 5 feet 3 inches, rarely weighed more than 115 pounds. When she did, she said she was fat. When I was a child, she would tell me that when she was younger she’d weighed 98. She said this was when she was skinny. When my mother weighed 110 pounds, I weighed 115, and then 118, and then 124. I knew this because I tracked my weight every day, sneaking into her bathroom to step onto her digital scale. Even then, I knew I would never be as skinny as my mother’s worst version of herself.

When I was in high school, my mother and I developed a ritual. She would pull me into her closet, open bags of carefully folded clothing, and ask if I wanted it—the pants that no longer fit, the shirts that were no longer hip. And I would take the bundle to my room and try it all on, watching my hips spill out, my cinched body gasping for space. And I would return the bundle, say something like “It’s not my style,” and then a year would pass and we would do it all over again, my valiant squeezing, my mother and I deluding ourselves in different ways.

Octopuses brood all over the sea. Giant Pacific octopuses lay tens of thousands of tiny eggs in their dens, strung from rock like dangling hyacinths. The purple octopus lays fewer, bigger eggs, each the size of a large blueberry. If you lay only 160 eggs, only 160 chances that your young will survive, you must watch over them for as long as you can. After she lays her eggs, the mother octopus bathes them in new waves of water, doused with oxygen and free of any silt or debris. The purple mother octopus in Monterey Bay chose to lay her eggs on a sheltered alcove on the canyon wall just a few feet above the seafloor. The scientists noted how the crown of a rocky shelf above her shielded her eggs from unwanted silt. The spot was perfect, it seemed, and she must have known it.

Octopus eggs offer precious nutrients in the immense sea, meaning the octopus mother cannot leave her post to hunt. She likely survives on the stored energy of her body. She will never again see another place; this is her last view, enlivened only by the freer creatures that happen to pass through the icy waters. In the deep sea, these visitors are alien: fish with transparent faces and golden eyes, ghost sharks, tongue-red worms.

My mother immigrated to the United States in seventh grade. She moved from Taiwan to Hancock, Michigan, one of the snowiest cities in a snowy state. Hancock, Michigan, where it has been known to snow in June. Hancock, Michigan, where all her neighbors were tall, pale, and blond. My mother spoke only Mandarin, so every day the kids at school reminded her in words she could not yet understand that she was different—not like them. This was how my mother learned to want to be as American as possible. To have blond hair like her classmates, to have their blue eyes and overalls and long legs. She told me she’d felt like an alien on a new planet. “You do what you have to, to survive,” she said.

If my mom grew up wanting to be white, I grew up wanting to be thin. I sometimes wondered whether, if I were full Chinese, not half, thinness would have come naturally. I never considered this obsession a disorder; eating disorders were for white women, said the movies and the magazines and the clinical papers. In front of mirrors, I squeezed the fat from behind my thighs to see how big my bones were, and if they were bigger than my mother’s, I blamed my whiteness. It couldn’t have been my fault, because I had tried everything: Running every morning. Seltzer instead of snacks. Laxatives when I was desperate enough to feel my body mercifully, urgently hollowed out. But every time I tried to starve my body, I found I could not. I was too ravenous, too impulsive.

When the running did not work, I asked my mother to put me on a diet. It was French, named after Pierre Dukan, a doctor who called obesity the 21st century’s greatest “serial killer,” who had his medical license revoked for commercializing his trademark diet and was sued for prescribing a patient an amphetamine-derived drug believed to have killed hundreds of people. I lasted a month on the Dukan diet.

There is technically no way of knowing whether the purple-turned-white octopus ate anything in her 53-month vigil, but there is no indication that she did. During one of its many visits, the sub offered the mother octopus small pieces of crab with its robotic hand, manipulated by scientists on a boat thousands of feet away at the surface. But the octopus refused, not even willing to taste. The examination of the single brooding Graneledone boreopacifica revealed an immaculately empty gut.

In the deep sea, everything starves. Space is depthless and barren here, life scarce, and meals few and far between. The water averages 39 degrees Fahrenheit, and metabolisms slow to a trickle, ensuring that animals hold on to their fat as long as they can. The large creatures go weeks, even months, without eating in their aimless foraging. Giant isopods, lavender pill bugs the size of casserole dishes, can survive for two months between meals. The apple-size white snail Neptunea amianta can last for three months. These stretches, not as grand as the purple octopus’s, are a way of life.

The offices of Trimm-Way Weight Center were on the second floor of a prim shopping mall that also boasted a State Farm and a dry cleaner. When the receptionist waved us into the office, I saw that my new weight-loss coach was white, and her name was Karen. Her dyed hair was the color of a banana, and her thin legs sprouted from black stilettos with a platform like a brick. My mother explained to Karen that I would like to lose weight. Karen looked me up and down and nodded.

She told me I could eat three meals of 300 calories a day as well as a 100-calorie snack. For breakfast, I ate three turkey sausages (100 calories), a glass of milk (90 calories), and an apple (100 calories). For lunch, I ate cottage cheese (100 calories) and grapes (100 calories). For dinner, I ate chicken breast (200 calories) and a vegetable, maybe broccoli (100 calories). All day I craved snacks horrendously, so much that I sometimes skipped dinner to eat 100-calorie packs my mother bought me, crinkled envelopes of waferlike Chips Ahoy and cardboardy Oreos and shrunken Wheat Thins. I chewed these until they became mush in my mouth, knowing that after I swallowed, there would be no more.

During my summer of Trimm-Way, there were days when my hunger became so great that I inhaled food—five bowls of cereal, three bags of popcorn, an entire box of Wheat Thins. When I was done, I would lie down in our yard, eyes closed, stomach in pain, dreading the lie I would have to tell at my weekly weigh-in. Sometimes I chewed over the trash can without swallowing, spitting out mouthfuls before they touched my throat.

When news outlets wrote about the purple octopus, they fixated on the numbers associated with her life: 53 months, four and a half years, 4,600 feet below the surface. When journalists wrote about her, they marveled at her body’s great and terrible capacity to stay alive while starving itself to death. Graneledone boreopacifica is one of the most abundant octopuses in the eastern North Pacific, meaning there are untold other octopuses sitting on their eggs for four and a half years or longer, whose sacrifices we did not happen to see.

In the Monterey canyon, the black-eyed squid Gonatus onyx carries her thousands of eggs in her arms as she swims. The eggs cling together in an enormous cluster and twinkle like a disco ball. Black-eyed squids are agile on their own, able to jet quickly away from whales, elephant seals, and other deep-diving predators. But a mother squid’s shimmering mass of eggs weighs her down, makes her slow and bulky. She still carries her babies, for six to nine months until they hatch. When they do, the mother squid dies; like the purple octopus, she has not fed for months.

Elsewhere in the deep, the giant red mysid Neognathophausia ingens, which resembles a shrimp, carries her eggs for approximately one and a half years. She, like the others, does not feed. Her eggs require 61 percent of the energy she has accumulated over her lifetime, meaning she gives more of herself to her babies than she does to herself. When her eggs hatch and the larvae swim away, she dies.

People who care for captive mother octopuses have witnessed the animal’s final moments, often called a death spiral. Some hurl themselves against the walls of the tank. Some rip off their own skin. Some even begin devouring themselves, tearing into the tips of their tentacles like they would a crab. That last image has seared itself into my mind. I wonder how those octopuses like the taste of themselves, their first meal after so many months of starvation. Do they savor it?

The first and only time I asked my mom about her eating, she was on the couch watching PBS Masterpiece Theatre. I started by talking about myself, how my body had repulsed me for so long, how I was not sure I was entirely better, how I was hopeful I could be. A long silence later, she asked me: “Are you saying it’s my fault that you’re like this?”

I realize now that my mother’s wish for me to be thin was, in its way, an act of love. She wanted me to be skinny so things would be easier. White, so things would be easier. Straight, so things would be easy, easy, easy. So that, unlike her, no one would ever question my right to be here, in America. I just wish I could tell her I’ve been okay without those things, that I’ve actually been better without them. I wish she would stop wanting those things too.

At some point, after the running but before the diets, my mother took me and my sibling to visit her college. We stopped at a hot-dog shop with a blue-and-gold sign featuring a dapper wiener leaning on a cane. When my mother told us she’d eaten here every week, I thought she was joking. The menu had only hot dogs, fatty sausages, and sodas—things I’ve never seen her touch. She told us to order whatever we wanted. I said I wanted to eat what she used to eat, so she ordered us enormous brats, slathered in sauerkraut, relish, and mustard. The dogs shattered in our mouths, fat and sauce leaking down our chins. I asked if my mom wanted a bite, and she shook her head. She watched us finish, wiped our dripping faces with napkins, and walked us to get frozen yogurt right down the block, another old meal. We ordered spires of plain yogurt teeming with sprinkles. I closed my eyes and imagined myself as my mother, my stomach my mother’s stomach, back when she was young and tasted whatever she desired, back when she feasted.

This article has been excerpted from Sabrina Imbler's new book, How Far The Light Reaches: A Life In Ten Sea Creatures.

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