ANCHORAGE — Aurora — with all eight of her arms — held tight to her dream of motherhood. The aging Giant Pacific octopus, a resident of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, embraced her maternal instinct and was rewarded this week as her eggs finally began hatching.
The first of thousands have burst out into pearly white, tear-shaped babies with huge eyes and stubby appendages.
“Every so often, not at great speed,” said center spokesman Jason Wettstein.
As of Wednesday, there were nine baby octopus in a rearing tank. Every hour, food was being dispensed through an electronic, automatic feeder. Three other tanks with thousands of eggs were set up in different locations in the center.
Aquarist Ed DeCastro noticed the first newborn Sunday.
“Initially we thought maybe it was a fluke,” DeCastro said. “But it turned out there were more to follow.”
Aurora began her long march toward motherhood last May when she was introduced to J-1, a long-in-the-tentacle bachelor. To the delight of aquarists, the two hit it off, flashing colors and retreating to a dark corner of the center’s “Denizens of the Deep” display.
A month later, Aurora laid tens of thousands of eggs. Her sense of mothering was strong, despite the fact that her eggs didn’t appear to develop and aquarists eventually believed they were sterile.
Day in and day out, she sucked in water through her mantle and sent waves of cleansing water over the eggs. She defended them against hungry sea cucumbers and starfish.
She continued to tend her eggs even after J-1, who had been removed from her tank for crankiness, died of old age in September.
Aurora didn’t even give up in December when aquarists — convinced the eggs weren’t fertile — began draining her 3,600-gallon tank. As the water went down and she was going down with it, she sprayed her eggs, now exposed and drying on a rock.
Sharp-eyed intern Meghan Kokal saved the day. Some eggs were placed in her palm and she gave them a close look, asking about the two red dots. The dots turned out to be developing eyes.
Aquarium curator Richard Hocking said the longer-than-usual wait — it takes 6 to 8 months in the Lower 48 for Giant Pacific octopus eggs to hatch — probably has to do with Alaska’s colder water. The aquarium gets its water straight from Resurrection Bay. It was 41 degrees coming into the center Wednesday.
Hocking said the baby octopus are vulnerable, their survival uncertain.
“If we can get one I would be pretty happy with that,” he said, “and we may be lucky and have more than that.”
Aurora’s fate, though, is sealed. Giant Pacific females usually die about the same time as their eggs hatch, mostly because they stop eating for months and spend their energy defending their eggs.
Aurora, who is probably about 4, was roughly the size of a grapefruit when she was found living inside an old tire in front of the SeaLife Center.
“This kind of means the end of her life,” DeCastro said.
Aurora, now much smaller than the 37 pounds she weighed when she was involved with J-1, may last a bit longer. Aquarists have been hand-feeding her crab, squid, herring and fish.
If anything, she appears invigorated, DeCastro said.
“She is still tending the eggs,” he said.