If you’re a movie buff, you’ve probably heard of the unlikely star of one of Netflix’s most recent and celebrated documentaries. My Octopus Teacher documents the true story of Craig Foster, filmmaker and co-founder of Sea Change, whose goal to reconnect with nature through daily ocean dives saw him bond with an octopus. The film was barely reviewed upon its release in September 2020 but spread like wildfire through word-of-mouth to feature in the streaming site’s top 10 several times in multiple countries.
The award-winning title (including commendations from Wildscreen, BAFTA, and the Oscars) presents in stunning detail the growing trust between the octopus and Foster, whose filmmaking experience was able to capture pivotal moments in their year-long relationship. The unlikely association began when, uncertain of his place or purpose in the world, Foster started taking daily dives in the Great African Seaforest. He hoped the regimen would make him feel like a part of nature rather than a spectator, by getting quite literally up-close and personal with some of the region’s most charismatic species.
As well as taking you on a journey through the protected kelp forest on Foster’s doorstep, the documentary gives a glimpse of daily life for an octopus and the peril that brings. This feat was helped in no small part by Professor Jennifer Mather, who co-director Pippa Ehrlich described as “an octopus psychologist”.
“She watched every single scene with us, discussed Craig’s interpretation, and helped us get inside the mind of an octopus as much as she could,” said Ehrlich in an interview with The Wrap. “She was able to help us understand that an octopus is a snail that has lost its shell – it’s a very, very intelligent creature that’s also very vulnerable. She told us an octopus’ main experience of the world is the tension between fear and curiosity.”
The documentary reinforces their vulnerability when the octopus suffers a serious injury, losing one of its eight arms to a pyjama shark. As it cowers, pale and weak, from the encounter (it’s now thought octopuses feel pain in the same way humans do) it’s difficult not to see it as a victim, but the filmmakers were eager to keep human codes of conduct away from those of the animals in the documentary.
“We didn’t name the octopus – that was the first thing we decided, because we knew that anthropomorphism could be a problem,” continued Ehrlich. “We wanted to give her as much octopus-ness as possible.”
As Foster’s daily exposure to the octopus enabled him to move from abandoning his camera as a means of getting footage, to being able to sit ringside as it went about its day, he captured an adaptation never before recorded in science. The “shell suit” defense mechanism displayed in the video below featured in Blue Planet II as cameraman Roger Horrocks and assistant producer John Chambers joined Foster on his daily dives. Thanks to his strict regimen, he was the first to report an octopus using a collection of shells in this way, creating a calcified suit of armor user its many suckers to keep the shells in place.
As for Foster’s initial motivations for embarking on this journey, it seems his fleeting (in human years) but intimate encounters with this octopus were successful in reaffirming his place in the world. “What she taught me is to feel that you are part of this place. Not a visitor,” said Foster. “And that’s a huge difference.”