“What she taught me was to feel like you’re part of this place, not a visitor, that’s a huge difference.” – Craig Foster
Living on the Western Cape of South Africa, powerful storms sent chilling water rushing into the bottom of Craig Foster’s family bungalow. Years later, facing personal and professional burnout, Foster turned back to the wild waters of the Atlantic Ocean to reignite the bond with nature and the sea he cultivated as a child. What he found below the water was an unexpected and life changing relationship.
After discovering a small octopus curiously darting around the kelp forest, Foster asked himself, “What happens if I go back every day?” This daily journey into a specific section of kelp forest lasted for a year and is chronicled in the new documentary, My Octopus Teacher.
Seeing the whole puzzle
One of the biggest obstacles to conservation is that we have lost touch with the natural world. My Octopus Teacher confronts us with a direct challenge to our human-centric view of the world around us by opening our eyes to the beautifully detailed and complex life of a small but mighty octopus. It grounds us in the reality that in fact we are just one piece in the vast puzzle of the global ecosystem.
Seeing a year of life through an octopus’ point of view is a humbling reminder of the magnificent complexity of the natural world and its expansive wonders that we all too often forget when we’re caught up with our daily reality. Foster’s experience is a vivid depiction of the unparalleled sense of purpose we can find when we immerse ourselves in nature.
Meeting the octopus
Foster initially discovered his octopus muse disguising herself with shells and rocks to hide from predators. While shy at first, she quickly warmed up to his presence and allowed him into her intricate world. “People ask, why are you going to the same place every day, but that’s when you see the subtle differences, that’s when you get to know your wild,” Foster explains.
These subtle differences include the fascinating intelligence of octopuses 一 among other things, this movie taught me that it is in fact “octopuses,” not “octopi.” Foster observes as she is able to not only change her color, but also her pattern and texture to blend seamlessly into her environment. When she approaches potential threats, she carries a shell out in front of her like a tentacled knight. Eventually, she even starts to use Foster’s body position in her hunting strategy, trapping lobsters between herself and his torso. He notes that this level of intelligence in a crustacean is evolutionarily improbable.
Thanks to Foster’s dedication and precision, the viewer feels like they too are floating through the kelp forest alongside this small purple creature. Footage of the octopus exploring and crawling across the surface of the camera makes you feel like you are nearly touching its suckers. His breaks to rise to the surface for air are the only reminder that Foster is not in fact one with this underwater world. “The boundaries between her and I seem to dissolve,” he says, describing the feeling of their interactions.
Octopuses are the epitome of exotic. With their many arms, bizarre horns, and ever-changing colors, they appear alien and otherworldly. Despite these fundamental differences, they are able to form profound relationships with humans. The friendship between Foster and the octopus shows us that the values of compassion and love can transcend species. That the multitude of species on our planet have more in common than we think. We are all fundamentally connected.
Watching the octopus nestle into Foster’s chest is reminiscent of the mutual trust and caring you would see when someone cuddles a cat or dog. Nonetheless, there are reminders that this is still in fact a wild animal. When a pajama shark tries to attack the octopus, Foster is faced with the incredibly difficult obligation to stand by and watch nature run its course.
Foster is not the only one fascinated by these tentacled teachers. Across the world, a team of researchers from Harvard were also captivated by the complex sense of touch and taste that directs octopuses’ lives.
Two thirds of an octopus’ neurons are located in its arms, so when the team wanted to learn more about the species’ senses, that’s where they started. They sought out to identify which cells in the 2,000 suckers actually do the detecting and after isolating and cloning the touch and chemical receptors, they put them into frog eggs and human cell lines to study their function in an isolated environment.
What they found was a new layer of sensors in the cells of the animals’ suction cups that allows them to detect molecules that don’t dissolve well in water. These highly sensitive sensors, called chemotactile receptors, help the octopus to discern between prey and other components of its environment.
These chemotactile receptors make up a sort of combination of the sense of touch, smell, and taste. When the octopus encounters an object, it can tell whether it is a rock or a crab not only by its feel, but also the scent and taste of its molecular structure. This tactile ability is so incredibly precise, it’s difficult to imagine a human equivalent.
Foster used research projects like this to learn more about this magical creature he discovered, but what he soon learned was that he was observing behaviors up close that had yet to be even documented by researchers. “You’re going into a place that’s understudied, and almost on a weekly basis, you can find out something new to science,” he says.
Sharing in nature’s wonder
Foster’s personal journey reviving his sense of purpose through a connection with nature parallels the world’s need to reconnect with this natural space we call home. The film’s director, Pippa Ehrlich said, “We are incredibly fortunate to have a seaforest on our doorstep, but I believe that it’s possible to have a meaningful relationship with nature no matter where you are in the world, whether it’s with the insects in your garden, or a plant that you nurture in your apartment.”
We wrote a story a few weeks ago about how storytelling, more than facts, can compel people to take action on climate change. Foster’s story ignites a desire to understand wilderness and share in its wonder so vividly that I found myself itching to head back to the wild places that have touched my heart.
A passion and a profession
After his experience with his octopus teacher, Foster went on to found the Sea Change Project, a community of divers dedicated to preserving the kelp forest. About the organization, he said, “Our real call to action is that people and government really take note and do active things to look after our lifeblood which is the sea.” Foster’s feeling of personal and professional
directionlessness is one familiar to many of us, but his experience under the sea fueled a project that took up space in every corner of his entire life. As someone at the starting line of my professional journey, it is heartening to see professional and personal purpose so closely intertwined.
Eventually, Foster began to take his son with him on his daily diving expeditions to share this innate bond he has with the kelp forest. Although the octopus eventually completes her life cycle, he is constantly aware of her impact on him. “I fell in love with her, but also with the amazing wildness she represented and how that changed me.”
Image sources: Sea Change Project