The first living thing visitors look at in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s new special exhibit looks right back.

Bigfin reef squid wait behind a 12-foot-long piece of glass near the start of the spellbinding Tentacles space that housed Jellies: Living Art and Secret Lives of Seahorses.

One of four fully grown, football-sized cephalopods hovers up to the glass to see what’s on the other side. It peers deeply, unblinking. Its glistening, ancient eye enjoys a grip stronger than its tentacles.

The gaze works like a goosebump conductor. It triggers a surprised laugh. It inspires motivation to bring a lawn chair.

Then the reef squid gildes away with a graceful flutter of its lateral skirts, joining its Indo-Pacific siblings in a perfect Rockettes lineup, like they had the routine pre-choreographed.

Something has happened here. It’s unclear what, exactly, but cross-species understanding was involved. Talk about an interactive exhibit.

Cephalopods – including squid, cuttlefish and octopi – live at every latitude (equator to poles) and depth (tide pools to kilometers beneath the sea). They can be as tiny as a fingernail (northern pygmy squid) and as big as a bus (giant squid), and their unique brains are a major chunk of their body mass. They solve puzzles and battle sharks, fit through openings roughly the size of a pinhole and occasionally attack (and eat) one other. They are often asked to pick the winner of major sporting events like the World Cup and Superbowl – and tend to do pretty well. Many use the art of camouflage as a cloak of invisibility. One shape shifts instantly; another hasn’t changed much in 500 million years. They use jet propulsion.

In short, they’re superheroes.

“I’m biased,” says aquarist Bret Grasse, who on the Weekly’s visit was dropping gnocchi-like stumpy cuttlefish into a display tank, “but I think they are the most unbelievable group of animals in the world.”

The entryway to Tentacles reinforces the hold they’ve had over humans, with museum-quality Minoan pottery, tiles from Pompeii and Victorian-era scientific and literary illustrations all dripping with tentacles. Also appearing: modern-day tattoo homages and a clip of Monsters from the Deep, in which a giant suction-cupped arm reaches up and pulls down a stretch of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We’re not just creating this obsession in 2014,” Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson says.

The hold tightens with what comes after the bigfin reef squid: the day octopus. The name comes naturally – it’s a diurnal eight-legger, as rare as a vampire with a tan, safely ambushing prey, eluding nemeses and patrolling corals from Hawaii to East Africa in broad daylight. It survives and thrives by transforming its skin into bumps, ridges and edges mimicking nearby rocks and reef.

In Tentacles, the day octo occupies a low, wide and cylindrical tank beautifully built for a hide-and-go-seek lesson in attentiveness. Here it is – wait, where’d it go? A trained eye can find him, once red and brown, now white and draped over a white coral, but also might not: The edge of the octopus is that subtle, its color changes that kaleidoscopic.

“These animals capture our imagination,” says Jaci Tomulonis, lead exhibit developer.

Superhero Squid

Oval fins extends around the bigfin reef squid’s mantle like translucent frills framing its body. While other squid are loners, when bigfin reef squid encounter a predator they form a long line to appear larger.

After the day octopus comes another wonder, the wunderpus, with another authentic name: the little red and white striped Indo-Malayan native can change its patterns, body type and verymovements wondrously to mimic everything from poisonous lionfish to sea snakes.

Around the corner the flamboyant cuttlefish’s shape and color – like an alien satellite tagged with Castro District graffiti – is compelling, but the real head tweak is the way it uses thick tentacles like feet to walk over ocean bottoms.

Its prehistoric relative – the nautilus – merits as much pondering itself, all encased in its curling Fibonacci sequence shell with a propulsion system that’s mystifying to the uninformed onlooker.

When the live action isn’t arresting – the red, iconic giant Pacific octopus will hide out as much as they can – videos of cephalopods opening jars, flamboyant cuttlefish hunting and deep-sea octopi and squids hypnotize and educate.

Moving “kinetic” sculpture by Oakland’s Nemo Gould – built from found materials and welded into animated steel shapes depicting the threats cephalopods like the nautilus, octopus and cuttlefish face – deserve a long stare themselves. Guests can race squid via propulsion devices and simulate a nautilus’ vertical sleuthing around a reef for food.

The rarity of the endeavor emphasizes the special in special exhibit further. The Aquarium has invested in their husbandry since its inception, but wasn’t able to bring them to exhibit until 30 years later, and only then thanks to collaborations with international aquariums and big help from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“This is definitely a first for any aquarium,” says Jennifer Dreyer, special exhibits coordinator for Aquarium’s animal care team.

Difficulty in keeping them alive comes from pressure, temperature and salinity sensitivities, and also because their natural life cycles are short, making time on exhibit often as quick as their color changes. As a result, staff will cultivate more backup species than they’ve ever kept for a single exhibit.

“These are all short-lived animals,” Dreyer says. “Many are species that have never been exhibited for very long or raised through their entire lifecycle.”

An egg lab offers a window into part of that process with an active display of the bubblers made into egg sacks from common plastic soda bottles; elsewhere a bank of tanks hides behind a retractable wall awaiting dumbo vampire squid, should Aquarium naturalists, using MBARI ROVs, come across some.

Near the end of the sequence, before the stumpy cuttlefish, comes another first. Captain’s chairs sit in front of tall Star Trek-style touch monitors and a master screen. A program invites visitors to video themselves changing facial expressions, which triggers varying octopus skin patterns overlaying each face – paralleling the changes octopi go through to creep on prey, hide from predators and seduce potential mates – then loads the clip for easy email.

It connects us to octopi, them to us, us to others, with conservation done viral along the way. Still, the most intense look at yourself – and the real communion between these sublime monsters and us – waits in big reflective eyes in the reef.

“TENTACLES: THE ASTOUNDING LIVES OF OCTOPUSES, SQUID AND CUTTLEFISHES” opens Saturday, April 12, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Included with admission ($39.95/adult; $34.95/senior and student; $24.95/child (3 – 12). Free MST trolley service links the aquarium with downtown Monterey, Pacific Grove and waterfront destinations during peak summer season (Memorial Day to Labor Day).

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