Living

Fiona, a feisty giant Pacific octopus, plays and ‘paints’ at Charlotte-area aquarium

Fiona is a star attraction at Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium, and not just because she’s a giant Pacific octopus that weighs 35 pounds with arms extending 6 to 8 feet.

This girl has personality.

Take her toys away? She’ll spray extremely cold water at you, “and you’re stuck soaking-wet the rest of the day,” Sea Life aquarist Kristin Dietz told The Charlotte Observer in an interview at the aquarium in Concord Mills mall.

That’s to be expected, Dietz said, as octopuses have the intelligence of a 3- to 5-year-old child.

Fiona loves to play hide-and-seek, said Audrey Padgett, general manager of the 26,000-square-foot aquarium, while noting how Fiona camouflages herself in different colors.

“She is a very interesting character,” Dietz said. “Most people don’t think an octopus has a personality at all, but she definitely has one. She is very feisty. She lets you know how she’s feeling, and so, if she’s done with you, she will go away.”

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Isabella Vanhoozer, 12, watches Fiona, a giant Pacific octopus, feed on crawfish placed in a tube. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Fiona has been at the aquarium since last spring, and staff estimate she’s about a year old. Octopuses live only about 3 to 5 years and prefer living alone. They mate only once, with both the female and male going off to die after breeding, according to National Geographic. That’s their lifespan regardless of whether they breed.

Because Fiona is so smart, Dietz said, Dietz and other staffers visit her daily for 15 minutes so she doesn’t become bored and try to escape, although the aquarium has no way for her to leave her tank.

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Fiona, a giant Pacific octopus, returns to the bottom of her tank after an interaction with Kristin Dietz, Sea Life aquarist. Fiona is a highly intelligent and interactive creature with her handlers. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

She plays with doggie and other toys and likes to touch staff members’ arms with any of her thousands of suction cups, Dietz said. She recognizes each worker, preferring to be closer to the one who doesn’t take her toys away, for instance, Dietz said.

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Fiona has thousands of suckers and each of the larger ones can hold about 30 pounds. Fiona interacts with her handlers on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Staffers also save “paintings” by Fiona, although she’s really going for the food they place on plastic wrap when she leaves impressions with her suction cups. They place paint on a canvass below the wrap to produce each “work of art.”

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Brianna Nowak, a marketing executive with Sea Life Charlotte-Concord, displays a “painting” by Fiona. The giant Pacific octopus marks the canvas with her suction cups. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Fiona at the same time is deceptively strong, so staff never allow her to place more than three of her arms on them at a time, Dietz said. “She could easily pull us into the tank if she wanted to, so we always have two people” when visiting her. One of her large suction cups can hold 30 pounds, staff at the aquarium said.

“She really wants friends to come with her — that’s what I firmly believe — and hang out with her at the bottom of the tank,” Dietz said.

Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium

Address: 8111 Concord Mills Blvd., Concord, NC.

Admission, if bought online: 13 and older, $15.95; ages 3-12, $10.95; 2 and under, free.

What you’ll see: More than 5,000 animals, including sharks, sting rays, pot belly sea horses, eels, star fish, silver moonies, giant Pacific octopus Fiona and rescued sea turtle Neptune.

What you learn: “It’s really important for kids to see this type of wildlife because it instills a love of the ocean, a love of nature that makes them want to be a force for good,” general manager Audrey Padgett said during a tour of the aquarium. “It helps them want to go out and solve plastic pollution and help marine life and realize what they do really can help all of these animals.”

Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.
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