Wanda, the giant Pacific octopus currently residing at Sidney’s Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, has come by her nickname honestly.
“We call her ‘Handsy,’” says Kit Thornton, chief aquarist. “She really likes to play. She’ll leave sucker-marks, like hickies, on your arm after play.”
This touchy-feely aspect of Wanda’s personality becomes obvious a little bit later when Thornton feeds Wanda shrimp frozen in ice cubs and entertains her with a ball and other assorted toys. As Thornton strokes the animal’s head, Wanda’s tentacles start to cling to Thronton’s bare arms and hands with outer tips touching the fabric of Thornton’s rolled-up sleeves.
“It’s like wrestling with a Kraken,” she says.
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Wanda (who is believed to be somewhere in the middle of her three-to-five-year lifespan) arrived in Sidney in December, weighing eight pounds, from the waters just off Ucluelet.
Wanda’s personality is the “complete opposite” from the previous occupant of her tank, Henry, named after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, with Thornton describing Henry — the animal — as very relaxed and calm.
Wanda received her name through an online contest in January. The centre’s two volunteers with the highest number of donated hours — 3,000 and 2,000 hours — had previously come up with eight names, which also included Taylor, Wendy, Michaela, Wilma, Maria, Whoopi, and Hannah.
Tina Kelly, director of learning and communications, says past naming contests have centred around a theme (like women scientists), with members of the public voting with paper ballots placed in front of the octopus tanks, a procedure not available during the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the naming contest for Wanda moved online.
“What is great about the contest is that it gives our community and our members and the public an opportunity to participate in the process and get people active outside the centre,” Kelly says. “This time, in particular, we really made sure that was a part of the contest, that people outside had to vote.”
Whether the public chose Wanda because of the movie A Fish Called Wanda is not clear, but visitors have historically accepted the winning choices, Kelly says, adding that it creates a connection. “We have had visitors who will come in and ask about octopus we had two years ago. Just on Sunday, I had a little boy come in and say, ‘where’s Dr. Henry?’”
He left the the centre in mid-December when staff released him into the Pacific Ocean, where Wanda will join him in about four to six weeks.
For Thornton, this period will feature a whole range of emotions.
“It’s always a bit bitter-sweet,” Thornton says about Wanda’s pending departure. “You do build a relationship with them over the four to six months that they are here. You are really glad to be seeing them go back to the ocean and then the hope is that they will reproduce and have offspring out there. And then there is a bit of excitement about meeting the new octopus coming and build that relationship up. So there is a whole bunch of feelings, but overwhelmingly it is positive.”
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The Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea is a non-profit aquarium and learning centre dedicated exclusively to the Salish Sea bioregion. Plan your future visit at salishseacentre.org
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