Swimming in the kelp forest.

My Octopus Teacher

Dept. of Slippery Cephalopods


I cannot swim. I simply don’t know how. I never learned as a child – mostly due to a traumatising incident involving the deep end of swimming pool that I can no longer recollect – and have therefore spent many an island getaway exiled on a chaise lounge. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve given swimming the old college try, but my body just refuses to take to water. It just sinks. I am simply unable to harness the balance of forces that somehow conspire to keep us from drowning.

What this means, is that there is a massive part of this world that remains physically and psychologically out of reach for me. So much so that the only way I can cavort with dolphins, or experience the Great Barrier Reef, or go down one of those long twisty water slides, is by way of BBC’s Blue Planet or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I will never truly understand what it means to lose myself in water. I will never know of that profound, often mind-altering experience, that comes with immersing myself in that part of our natural world.

That said, My Octopus Teacher came pretty damn close to helping me fill that void.

My Octopus Teacher (no, it isn’t just another oddly titled anime) is the intimate diary of Craig Foster, a freediver and filmmaker who, during a particularly dark period of his life, spent a year observing and chronicling an octopus in the kelp forests along the South African coast.

Ridden with anxiety, unable to sleep, and having lost his passion for filmmaking, Foster sought out some rather uncommon therapy. Immersing himself in his surroundings, he took to the cold and violent waters of the Western Cape, without a wetsuit, and without oxygen. Like the trackers of the Kalahari Desert, he wanted to be one with his environment. He wanted to upgrade his brain, sharpen his focus, and develop an in-depth understanding of the waters around him. Here he was, an alien explorer entering a strange and undiscovered world.

It was on one of these dives that he happened upon a rather strange looking  jumble on the ocean floor. It was this weird object, made up of rocks and shells, and unlike anything he had ever encountered before. As he was studying it, a tentacle suddenly emerged from within, the formation fell apart, and a creature rocketed away.

This underwater oddity turned out to be a female octopus, who had built a sort of “shell suit” in order to camouflage and protect herself from predators. It was truly remarkable. In fact, Foster was so enamoured and enthralled by this that he made a promise to dive every day in order to discover everything he could about this foreign life form. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because you may have seen some of Foster’s footage on the “Green Seas” episode of Blue Planet 2. It was this discovery that was described by David Attenborough as previously unseen behaviour.)

And dive he did. For 324 days he watched this soft-bodied mollusc hunt and feed, frolic and play, and fight to survive. He wins her trust, moves with her, and interacts with her, all in the hope of trying to understand what makes her tick. This very embodiment of otherness. This thing that seems to have evolved independently from all other life on earth.

My Octopus Teacher is a miraculous piece of documentary filmmaking. Foster approaches his subject with both curiosity and seriousness. He tries hard to employ scientific method, but despite his best efforts, he can’t help but step in and interfere following a rather dangerous incident with a relentless pyjama shark.

It was at that moment when I knew I was watching something different. This wasn’t the kind of clinical inquiry you might find on National Geographic. It wasn’t some cutesy Disneyfication either. This was a deeply personal journey, one propelled by intellectual discovery, but in service of mental and spiritual catharsis. While Foster doesn’t anthropomorphise his subject by giving her a name, he is nevertheless emotionally invested in her wellbeing. And while he knows that these feelings are, in no way, reciprocal, he can’t help but fall in love.

This is a movie that is exemplary in how it uses nature documentary conventions to tell the story of one man’s journey to break free from his own depression. By exploring and learning, by understanding the intricate synergies that make up our natural world, and by seeking out and coming to terms with his place in it, Foster finds himself becoming a better father, husband, and human being.

I didn’t expect this documentary to move me quite as much as it did. There was power in their story. There was passion in their unspoken interactions. I felt real fear whenever I saw that pyjama shark lurking. I wept when this young octopus reached out and clung intently to Foster’s chest in what would be their last encounter. Theirs was a beautiful relationship. And one that I genuinely feel served them both.

My Octopus Teacher is a thoughtful and passionate paean in service of our fragile ecology. It is a meditation on life, and death, and purpose. It is proof that salvation comes to us through many forms, and in a variety of ways.

My Octopus Teacher
85 minutes
Directors: Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed
Cast: Craig Foster, Octopus

My Octopus Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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