Lurking dangerously in the darkest nautical nightmares is a colossal sea monster. Miles long, with multiple heads and flailing arms, serrated suckers and enormous claws that can crush whole ships, crews, and other animals. It can whip up deadly whirlpools and yank its victims down into the depths to meet their end.

The horrifying legend of the monstrous Kraken, is that of an enormous octopus, and dates back to Norway in 1180. Yet today, an even greater monster is dragging them from the sea, confining, and consuming them for their flesh: humans.

The truth about the octopus couldn’t be further from the folklore. In his award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster follows a wild common octopus in a South African kelp forest, developing an incredible bond with her. In an emotional journey the octopus learns to trust him, showing affection, playfulness, trust, and sharing her short life (just over a year) with the filmmaker. He witnesses her remarkable capacity for learning fast to survive, outwit predators, and hunt. 

It’s an incredible story and seeing the profound effect the undeniably intelligent, curious, and affectionate octopus has on Foster, only makes what humans do to them even more horrific. 

These amazing animals have large brains that allow them to learn quickly, solve complex problems, use tools, remember individuals, and communicate with a wide range of body language. They actually have three hearts and nine brains – including one on each arm, so it’s safe to conclude that they feel everything.

Octopus Captivity: A Harmful Experience

So how do they handle imprisonment? As highly sensitive animals, octopuses require a dynamic and complex marine environment with plenty of mental stimulation and enrichment. The inadequacy of captive environments quickly leads to boredom and stress-related behaviours, like repetitive pacing and self-harm. 

Of course, tanks can never replicate the vast, ever-changing ocean where octopuses typically dwell. One octopus, Brenda, was observed in a Freedom for Animals investigation that captured footage of her looking visibly distressed in her tank.

Like other intelligent animals held captive, they are notorious escape artists. An octopus can slip through tiny openings and use their problem-solving skills to find weaknesses in their enclosures, leading to frequent escape attempts, injuries, and death. 

One octopus named Inky, made a daring escape from the National Aquarium of New Zealand, slipping through a small gap in his enclosure and making his way to freedom in the ocean. Another called Otto realised he could turn the light off by squirting at the fixture. It’s now been moved out of his reach, but it doesn’t solve the problem that he’s trapped in a tank with no ability to influence his surroundings. 

In Kanaloa, Hawaii octopuses were subjected to confinement, breeding, and farming for food. Damning reports included improper handling by staff in public displays, and old tanks that leaked so much, octopuses were found at the bottom with barely any water. Some animals made escape attempts and were found dead on the floor. 

Kanaloa, Hawaii subjected wild-caught octopuses to cruel confinement while misleading the public about its purpose”, says The Every Animal Project Founder Laura Cascada who published a recent investigation into the octopus farm on Hawaii’s Big Island. “I hope that the State of Hawaii will continue to protect these complex animals by keeping Kanaloa from reopening.”

Kanaloa was removing octopuses from the wild and forcing them to breed in captivity”, adds Allison Molinaro, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) US Campaigns Manager. “None of the octopuses born on the farm survived past 13 days.” 

Farming Octopus for Meat

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, around 270,000 tons of octopus is imported by various countries around the world annually. Just last year, a controversial proposal for an octopus factory farm in Spain sparked global outrage among animal welfare advocates and environmentalists. The farm aims to raise thousands of octopuses for food consumption and is still a threat. 

Farming octopus for food is an industry protected by its links to cultures and economies. Nonetheless, the public backlash against this project is fuelled by concerns about the incredible intelligence and complex lives of octopuses. So why is the same outpouring of emotion not levelled against keeping them in captivity for entertainment?

Conservation Status and Threats

An investigation by Freedom for Animals in 2021 found that “the vast majority of species held by aquariums (91.7% of fish species) are not considered to be under threat.” Sure enough, the common octopus or giant Pacific octopus is most likely to be found in captivity, yet is not necessarily among the most endangered. A more critically endangered species is the Hawaiian day octopus, and capturing them for the aquarium trade is only accelerating their decline in the wild. 

Thankfully the Kanaloa Octopus Farm has now permanently closed after the state of Hawaii decided not to renew the facility’s lease. “Now rebranded Kanaloa Octopus Research Center, the owner will no longer remove octopuses from the wild and force them into a petting zoo on land to be bred and farmed for meat”, reports CIWF, “but instead plans to charter tourists out to sea to view octopuses in their natural habitat.

Turning the Tide on Octopus Captivity

With indisputable skills and intelligence that set them apart, octopuses are our teachers, not toys to be torn out of the sea and abused for food or entertainment. Failure to recognise the sentience and rights of animals simply because they look so different to us really says a lot about our own intelligence (or lack thereof) and sets humanity apart, only for our own stupidity.

Conservation efforts must prioritise protecting their natural habitats and studying them in their wild environment whenever possible. Yet, octopuses continue to be held captive in aquariums in the UK and beyond to be used as visitor attractions and exploited for profit. Freedom for Animals is fighting to expose the truth about the aquarium industry and we demand that octopuses and all animals must no longer be bred in captivity or taken from the wild. 

Stories like My Octopus Teacher, building a deeper connection between humans and the natural world are exactly what we need now. It’s time to put the mythology in the past and create a new narrative for octopuses – one that makes the monsters leave them alone to live their lives wild and free, under the sea.

Freedom for Animals investigates, exposes, and campaigns to end animal exploitation in the UK and beyond. You can support our work and help us fight for a world without tanks by: