If you could have one superpower what would it be? Invisibility? Shapeshifting? True genius?
If you’re an octopus those are built-ins. No upgrades necessary. And they’re all brilliantly exposed in the new Netflix documentary, “My Octopus Teacher.”
The film follows South African filmmaker, Craig Foster, as he befriends a female octopus in an Atlantic Ocean kelp forest near his home in 2010.
The friendship comes as he’s going through a depression, seeking answers about his life. That quest takes him on the most unusual journey now teaching the world about nature, females, and compassion.
The film has received eight nominations for the Jackson Wild Media Award and recently won Best Feature at the EarthxFilm Festival.
Eight Arms, No Friends
Generally, octopuses are not social creatures, which makes Foster’s relationship all the more compelling.
After weeks of him swimming down to her cave and observing her from a distance, the octopus finally touched Foster with her sucker-covered arms (there are thousands of suckers on octopus arms, similar to fingers).
Curiously she explored Foster and his camera equipment. She’d eventually accept him and acknowledge his presence. She’d even swim into his arms and up to the surface with him so he could breathe. She’d let him tag along on her daily routines of hunting and being hunted herself.
Octopuses are some of the most intelligent creatures of the sea. They can build complex devices for hiding, get creative with acquiring food, outsmart predators — and, you truly haven’t lived until you’ve seen an octopus escape his or her enclosure.
But, cephalopods are also a bit of a paradox — living fast and dying young, despite their acuity.
Female octopuses spend their short lives all alone, until they mate. This usually happens after about a year. A male octopus will pick up her scent. They mate, and she will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs. As in, half a million eggs, all at once.
This stealth and adept solo hunter now has a new purpose: perpetuating the species. And it takes every ounce of energy the octopus has in order to do this. It literally kills her. She can’t give that much of herself and survive.
“Like a devoted hen, she’ll guard her brood, stroking the eggs and occasionally blowing water at them, but she won’t abandon them—not even for a second,” George Dvorsky wrote for Gizmodo.
It’s no surprise then that animal rights groups like PETA have been urging people to stop eating octopuses for years.
How Animals Change Us
If Foster had befriended a dog or cat, most people would think nothing of it. We’re supposed to have friendships with those animals, right? But an octopus?
The eight-limbed, three-hearted, color- and shape-shifting mollusks are about as far from human as it gets.
At one point in the film, Foster refers to her as a liquid predator. It’s accurate; she pours herself through the tiniest cracks and crevices in the hunt for prey. She succeeds where others would be doomed to fail.
You don’t need to be Dr. Doolittle to know what a cat or dog might want to tell you (although, yes please). But what would an octopus say?
And that’s where Foster truly succeeds in “My Octopus Teacher.” We can’t stop asking these questions about a creature so foreign and yet so similar.
She is undeniably alive, capable, and curious about her world. We want to know her just as he did.
Foster can’t hide his emotion. He’s tearful throughout the film, especially (spoiler) when discussing her death. He reminisces like he’s talking about a person, a relative. And in the most organic of ways, he is doing that.
This is self-awareness, both for Foster as he witnesses his own evolution during the relationship, and the octopus’s, as she proves several times in the film that she is aware of her world, her actions, and the activity of her four-limbed friend.
But here’s the thing: her life was nothing extraordinary. It could have been any octopus that Foster stumbled on and befriended. And that’s exactly what makes it so important.
The closer we look at sentience, at her sentience, and the uniqueness of an individual creature, the more it matters.
Foster overcame his depression thanks to his octopus teacher’s greatest lesson. “We as human beings are completely part of nature, we are designed and made wild,” he told The Daily Mail.
Her impact, although it was only for a short period of his life, has gone on to define him and his life’s work. Even Foster’s teenage son is now an avid ocean conservationist alongside his dad, eager to learn about and protect the natural world.
Foster was so transformed by the octopus that he created The Sea Change Project, a community working to protect South Africa’s kelp forest. “Our goal is to protect South Africa’s marine environment by making the Great African Seaforest a global icon,” the Sea Change Project’s official website says.
“We are still, just underneath our skin, completely connected to the wild environment. And we are totally reliant on the natural system for every single breath we take, for every mouthful of food we put in our stomachs,” Foster told the Daily Mail.
“We are woven of the same thread. We’re made of the same stuff. If the natural system suffers, we suffer.
“So it’s absolutely critical that if we want to stay on the planet as a species, that we get together and figure out how to regenerate that wild system that’s keeping us alive every second.”
My Octopus Teacher is currently streaming on Netflix.
Images via Sea Change Project
Jill Ettinger is a writer, editor, and business development consultant focused on vegan and sustainable industries. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter and their two rescue cats.