Synopsis: A year in the life of an octopus and the man who follows her.
Consider two life forms: one from the sea and one from the land.
The water creature has three hearts, lives just a couple of years, has a donut shaped brain and can have half a million offspring at a time. (They are also nocturnal hunters with venomous saliva, but aren’t vampires.)
The land creature has just one heart, lives for decades, has a wrinkly half melon-shaped brain and produces usually one or two offspring at a time. (They aren’t vampires either, but can fall in love with them in books.)
The water creature is the world’s most intelligent invertebrate: the octopus. The second creature is arguably the planet’s most intelligent vertebrate: the human. Humans have lots of competition at the top of the intelligence pyramid: cetaceans, birds and other great apes. But the octopus is an easier winner; its competition amongst other mollusks includes snails, clams and oysters– none of which even have a brain.
My Octopus Teacher, streaming on Netflix, follows a female Common Octopus who lives in the waters off of South Africa in a kelp forest. She’s the teacher in the title. The student is the human Craig Foster, a naturalist documentarian. As you will discover, Little Octopus seems usual for her kind. She is strange to us, but not grotesque. The man is unusual. In a good way.
The concept for the film developed organically. After decades of making documentaries about the natural world, Craig burns out. As a way to deal with his depression, he begins swimming every day in the cold waters near his South African home. Although the shallows that he swims in are roughly 40°F/ 4°C, he feels that he shouldn’t wear a dry suit because he wants to be more himself. Or something like that. Craig explains that “After about a year you crave the cold.” Yes, this happens shortly after you go mad.
He zips about, free swimming through the roiling waves, down into the kelp forest that swells with marine life. He says that, as time goes by, he can hold his breath longer and longer. “I want to be more an amphibious animal,” he shares. And, over the months of filming, he does seem to become more mer than man.
Now if I were plunging, half-naked, into icy shark-filled waters every day, I would hope that someone would have me committed. But the activity and observing the richness of the ocean’s animals invigorates Craig. No news on his wife or son’s thoughts on the matter. But if they moved out, it might take Craig a few days to notice.
One day, on the sea’s sandy floor, our intrepid honorary merman notices a softball-sized globe covered with shells. It does look like quite the crafts project. When Craig gets too close, a startled little octopus shakes herself and jets away. This is the beginning of Craig’s wonderful obsession with the creature. Everyday he goes to the ocean to swim and makes a point of looking for her, taking photographic notice of her way of life.
At first she is scared of him, then curious. One day she brings herself to approach a camera he has set up outside her den. She picks up a shell and uses it as a shield for her soft body as one arm reaches out to tentatively inspect the shiny gadget. Of course, we don’t know if she is bothered at first by Craig’s presence, but she clearly develops an interest in him, going so far as to reach out and touch him when he extends a hand to her. Weeks go by and she seems to conclude that he is a harmless weirdo. Ah, my kith and kin.
As anyone who has seen The Little Mermaid knows, life under the sea is full of drama and wonder. Unfortunately, we don’t see our octopus friend playing a xylophone, but her life is no less thrilling. We see how resourceful and skilled she must be to hunt down her food (fish and crustaceans– watch out, Sebastian the crab). And how quick and clever she needs to be to escape her predators. All sorts of animals eat octopus (people should not because of the gross and cruelty factors, imo), but this octopus’ nemeses seem to be pyjama sharks. Their name makes them sound cute and they do have nice stripe-y patterns and top out at less than four feet long. But going after our octo friend they are positively villainous; stalking her with their excellent sense of smell and slicing teeth.
Allowing that he’s ‘strange,’ Craig resolves to think like an octopus. He develops excellent tracking skills and shoots fantastic footage. Week after week, month after month, he documents her remarkable endeavor to survive against the odds. On at least one occasion, Craig slips into the sea at night to observe her. Such a thing would seem like a reasonable outing only to an Aussie or South African, with Craig being the latter.
The waterlogged nutter knows where her den is and the paths she favors and so manages to find her, busily hunting crustaceans. While she is still, observing her prey, the chromatophores in her skin allow her to change color and she can also stretch her wobbly skin into shapes, allowing her to camouflage or disguise herself. (Wow, if I could do this, I’d never get bored.) When hiding from predators, she wraps herself in kelp or hastily arrange shells to cover her recumbent form. (Also things I would like to do.)
Craig doesn’t anthropomorphize the little octopus, in fact he resists naming her, respecting her wild otherliness. She is a fascinating and sympathetic creature. But Craig’s film project can’t go on too long because even under the best of circumstances, an octopus lives less than a thousand days. And Craig’s land bound family needs attention too.
A break from making fun… My Octopus Teacher touches on profound subjects. Craig has a sort of spiritual renaissance, recognizing and cherishing one precious and singular life. Prompting us to consider the spiritual waste of extricating ourselves from the value of other lives and the natural world that we share.
Craig Foster is co-founder of the Sea Change Project which seeks to educate people as to the ecological importance of kelp forests and advocate for laws to protect them.
P.S. For more general information on octopuses click here.
P.P.S. Click here for a thought-provoking article on marine wildlife in the 21st Century.