My experience with octopus as a species is limited: I have heard that they have amazing powers of prediction when it comes to world soccer events. I’ve eaten it and can liken it to fishy chewing gum, which may or may not appeal.
That being said, I have been lucky enough to have a closer encounter than most people with one of these mysterious creatures. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I saw one in Ibiza, Spain where it was clambering out of someone’s net in a bid for freedom. I was situated a little way back from the shoreline, watching as its tentacles were curling and reaching in a way that seemed entirely foreign but measured and tentative in its exploration. I have to say, I was fascinated and dared myself to get close but paradoxically, was also quite prepared to keep my distance. After some time assessing its chances, it managed to escape the clutches of the net and very adeptly found its way back to the deeper waters of the sea, much to the consternation of the person holding the net and the gathered crowd which gasped and barely believed its agility out of the water. I was sad but also glad to see that it had made its escape. It was, for me, a holiday highlight.
Nature documentaries which concern themselves with man developing a close relationship with a wild creature tend to focus on those species that are perhaps easier to love, sharing more common features with us, for instance, (not meaning to sound trite) hair and feet: Grizzly Adams and his bear; Joy Adamson and Elsa, the lioness immortalised in Born Free; Jane Goodall and gorillas. My point is that the octopus is not generally a creature that is viewed as an animal with which we have a lot in common. With its tentacles, its strange bulbous head and its languid way of moving, it does feel like it has come from another world and somehow, has become lost on our planet.
And it seems that I am not alone in feeling this way. In fact, one of the opening lines to Craig Foster’s narration of My Octopus Teacher is “A lot of people say that an octopus is like an alien”. The fact that this documentary sets about dispelling their strangeness and showing the octopus to be something that is actually quite endearing makes this film all the more beguiling.
I am not overstating it when I tell you that I found it to be an absolute treat.
The background to My Octopus Teacher goes like this: Craig Foster is a film maker but he has reached a level of burnout where he felt disconnected from his life and the people around him. In a bid to find himself again, he returns to his childhood home in South Africa and rekindles his love for swimming, something which he remembers with fondness from his childhood and which he finds liberating on so many levels.
It becomes his salvation and along with once more discovering his love for the sea and the regenerative powers of immersion in nature, he finds, once more, his love for filming, all ignited again by his encounter with an octopus.
In the sea, very near to his house, there is a kelp forest and his filming allows us to enter this surreal underwater world which is beautifully shown throughout the film. Tendrils of seaweed float in the swells and we watch as Craig weaves through them, the light from above creating the most amazing nuances of colour that augment this seascape, giving it an atmosphere of otherworldliness. There are multicoloured fish, sea urchins and anemones; striped sharks known as pyjama sharks patrol the sea floor; and there is a strange shell sculpture perched on the sand.
The sculpture is our introduction to the octopus and sets the tone for the film as we are transported along with Craig’s narration into this fascinating underwater world and this engaging creature that inhabits it.
And engaging is the right word because the life of this octopus is intriguing; the way it moves; the way it hunts; the way it approaches Craig when he wins its trust. It is very difficult to come away from this film with anything but a warm feeling towards this animal. This is, of course, enhanced by Craig’s enthusiasm for it and what it can do. You can tell that it is a creature that he respects and wishes well, looking out for it when it’s not clearly visible but not interfering in the natural order of things and letting the octopus come to him, allowing it to investigate him on its own terms without pressure.
The octopus species does not have a very long life, Craig mentions that it can be about a year, so already you know that this relationship is fleeting and wonder at what point it must inevitably end.
This film was not what I expected at all and I think that these films are the best – they present you with something to which you believe you already have a response. I remembered from my own experience how seeing that octopus made me feel that day and so I thought that the emotions I would experience whilst watching this film would be of curiosity and wonder and that was the case.
However, what I did not expect was how affected I would be by the fate of the octopus. I wanted her to chase crabs and survive attacks and live to fight another day so badly. I also didn’t want Craig to lose her.
I recognised in the relationship that Craig formed with this most unlikely of creatures something that gets lost, perhaps because of our dominating colonisation of this planet; perhaps because of our love of technology and the cerebral avenues it offers us; perhaps because we just don’t have the time to explore as much because of the constraints of modern life.
I recognised a love for nature and the world that we inhabit with other creatures, creatures who have as much right to enjoy it as we do. I recognised that there can be a harmony between things that are vastly different to us with a little trust and gentleness. I recognised that friendship and contact with others is incredibly important especially for healing, for conquering whatever has diminished you, whether mentally or physically.
I liked the connection that Craig obtained with his octopus, a her, and didn’t find it bizarre at all.
And if you can get over the fact that this film is about a man who some would say weirdly becomes captivated with an octopus, then I think that you will like it too.