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Padilla Bay aquarium staff, volunteers say goodbye to Bella the octopus

Padilla Bay nature center aquarist Mark Olson, left, shows visitors some of the creatures in its aquariums during a summer 2015 presentation.
Padilla Bay nature center aquarist Mark Olson, left, shows visitors some of the creatures in its aquariums during a summer 2015 presentation. The Bellingham Herald

With a steady hand, scalpel and no fear of the stench, Samantha Russell cut into a dead octopus about the size of a banana Thursday at the Breazeale Interpretive Center aquarium near Bay View.

The octopus, named Bella, died this week after nearly a year at the aquarium at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Russell, who works at the reserve, removed Bella’s beak in order to keep it for ongoing education purposes.

“Animals die, that’s a fact of life. But if this little beak from Bella can help inspire someone to protect the Salish Sea, then I think it was a life well lived,” Russell said.

The black beak is about the size of a pea and resembles a parrot’s beak.

It’s the only solid part of an octopus, is made of a material similar to that of a fingernail and is used to inject prey with a toxin.

“They (octopuses) can fit through anything that’s that size or bigger because all their muscles can squish up,” Russell said.

While alive, Bella provided visitors the opportunity to see how an eastern Pacific red octopus moved, ate and guarded her eggs.

“These are incredible creatures that we need to respect and understand as part of our Salish Sea home,” Russell said.

Aquarist Mark Olson, who often fed and watched Bella, said the dissection was difficult for him to see.

“You care for them and there is something deeply personal in that. … They’re all unique, they all have different personalities,” he said of Bella and the three other octopuses the aquarium has kept in recent years.

He said some are shy and illusive, while others are show-offs.

Bella was the active type until spending several months huddled over eggs she had laid that never hatched.

The eggs were eventually eaten by sea stars or hermit crabs sharing the aquarium tank.

Reserve staff knew Bella wouldn’t live much longer, as most octopuses die soon after hatching young. Bella had also experienced changes to her eyes and whitening on her body a few months after losing her eggs.

Nonetheless, saying goodbye was still sad for some, including Alina Oudman who thanked Bella for contributing to marine education at the reserve.

“You totally just form an attachment to the little guys and they are just mesmerizing to watch,” she said. “She (Bella) changed colors a lot and was just a beautiful creature.”

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