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‘Octopus Teacher’ Lets Filmmaker Into Secret World

The documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ chronicles how filmmaker Craig Foster studies and learns from a female cephalopod.
The documentary ‘My Octopus Teacher’ chronicles how filmmaker Craig Foster studies and learns from a female cephalopod.

South African nature filmmaker Craig Foster was burned out. He had lost his passion for working on documentaries such as “Blue Planet 2.” To re-energize, he started free diving without an oxygen tank or wet suit near in the chilly waters off the Western Cape, where he’d grown up.

The dives served as a form of therapy, comforting yet challenging the depths of his understanding of marine life. He remembered seeing indigenous San bushmen ply their tracking skills in southern Africa’s Central Kalahari Desert 20 years earlier.

“These extraordinary men were just so close to nature and they were just so good at tracking and understanding the natural system,” Foster says. “I was deeply envious of their abilities. … And then I had this idea: Could I ever track animals underwater?”

Over four years of diving every day, he learned how. It was a “very exciting, empowering process,” Foster says, “and that enabled me to get into the secret world of some of these special animals.”

One tangible result is “My Octopus Teacher,” the first South African nature documentary to air as a Netflix Original. Released in early September on the pay channel, it tells the tender story of Foster befriending a small octopus in the icy Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Town.

Accruing honors

The film, for which Foster did the underwater photography, has already won a prestigious award and has been nominated for a slew of others.

It shows Foster diving every day to visit a female octopus he discovered when she burst from beneath a pile of shells. At first, the small cephalopod is wary. Over time, she reaches out to him with one tentacle and eventually trusts him enough to sit on his chest and let him stroke her.

“She taught me humility. She taught me compassion. She opened my mind to just how precious wild creatures are and how complex,” says Foster, who, despite his familiarity with the creature, never gives her a name.

“It’s quite incredible. You think: This is an animal that’s separated in evolution by hundreds of millions of years and it’s a mollusk, essentially a snail without a shell. But she’s got a huge mind and huge curiosity and a tremendous intelligence,” he says. “… That’s why I called her my teacher, because I did learn so much from her.”

Foster in 2012 had co-founded the Sea Change Project, a nonprofit group meant to protect marine life by raising awareness of the South African kelp forest’s ecological importance.

The film, too, has been years in the making. While Foster eventually had a big team, he and environmental journalist Pippa Ehrlich initially worked alone for a few years. It was her first movie, and she directed — with James Reed – wrote, filmed and edited.

Building understanding

Ehrlich says she hopes the work will create awareness about the octopus’s home. The Great African Sea Forest stretches for 1,300 kilometers, or just over 800 miles, along South Africa and Namibia’s coastlines.

In the last few decades, “40 percent of our world’s kelp forests have declined and some of them have disappeared completely,” mostly due to climate change, Ehrlich says. “And unlike coral bleaching, for example, it’s not something that’s getting a lot of attention. … In fact, a lot of people don’t know that there is such a thing as an underwater forest.”

Ehrlich gave up a job diving to film sharks all over the world to work on “My Octopus Teacher,” even though it had no funding at the time. So she’s grateful for the positive response to the film.

It has received eight award nominations for Jackson Wild — known earlier as the Jackson Hole (Wyoming) Wildlife Film Festival — including for best feature film and best ecosystem film.

It has two nominations for the British-based Wildscreen Panda Awards, which recognize international wildlife film and TV content, and six for the German-based Green Screen Festival.

And, says Ehrlich, “we were really, really excited to win the best feature” category for the Texas-based EarthX Film Festival in April.

Awards or not, Foster says “My Octopus Teacher” has a lesson for mankind.

“We are totally reliant on the natural world as our life support system. It keeps us breathing” and eating, the filmmaker says. “It’s easy to forget that in this industrial world, running around and trying to survive.

“So it’s absolutely critical that we reconnect with nature, no matter where we are, and seriously get together to think about how we can regenerate the very system that is keeping us alive.”

This report originated in VOA’s English to Africa service.