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Explained: Life-lessons from My Octopus Teacher

Craig Foster talks at length about the impact the octopus has on his life, and how his relationships with other human beings also changed. He also attributes the ‘gentleness’ in his son — now a diver himself — to the thousands of hours spent in nature.

The 85-minute documentary feature, My Octopus Teacher, which won the best documentary award at the recently concluded Academy Awards, is about the relationship that developed between a human being and a wild octopus. But the ramifications and impact of that relationship were manifold. Directed by Pippa Erhlich and James Reed, the film is narrated by Craig Foster, also producer of the film that is currently streaming on Netflix.

The student and the teacher

Struggling with his life, and dealing with a burnout, so much so that he never ‘wanted to step into an editing suite again’, filmmaker Foster turned to diving into the kelp forest, located in False Bay, near Cape Town South Africa. The filmmaker had earlier spent his childhood diving into the rock pools that formed in the vicinity, and felt that reconnecting with that experience could help him again. He started diving into the cool, somewhat shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean where a wild octopus captured his attention. He then decided to dive everyday, and document the meetings. We are taken into the sublime blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where the water is about 8-9 degree celsius, and we sway with the kelp that grows everywhere and even feel the white sand grains as Foster walks on them barefoot.

A 365-day rendezvous, well almost

Foster chose to forgo a wet suit, and even an oxygen tank. He dived shirtless, equipped with a pair of diving fins and a snorkel. He started to trace the octopus, and slowly, steadily developed a relationship with her. It reached a point where she even came and rested on his hand and even travelled to the surface with him, as he came up for air.

Everyday, Foster would come back home and read up on the species in scientific journals and papers, to help him better understand his new friend from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. “She was teaching me to become sensitised to the other wild creatures”, shares Foster in the film. He follows her around, and after reading that ‘octopuses are nocturnal creatures’, he even dived into the waters at night, and captures her hunting fish, crabs and lobsters.

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Near death experience

Foster also saw her constantly being chased by predators of the seas, in her case, the small but very agile Pajama Shark — they have stripes on their backs, hence the name — who would chase her right upto her very den. In one such encounter, a shark bit one of the arms of the octopus and she fell very sick. The octopus took over a week, recuperated quietly in her den, and slowly her arm grew back. She was back to her fully functional self. “Our lives were mirroring each other”, said Foster in the film. While the octopus was mending herself in the sea after a violent attack, Foster was rebuilding his relationship with his son, and took him diving. He even made him meet the octopus.

The cycle of life and death

After about the 320th day mark, Foster’s octopus met a male octopus, and mated. The life cycle of an octopus is such, that most of her body is used by her eggs to sustain and then hatch. Her life is literary sacrificed to further the lifespan of the young. Over a week or so, Foster’s friend lay quietly in her den, hatching the eggs and her life slowly dissipating out of her. Once she is gone, her body is consumed by scavengers from the sea, and ultimately a Pajama shark comes and takes her body away.

In memoriam

Foster talks at length about the impact the octopus has on his life, and how his relationships with other human beings also changed. He also attributes the ‘gentleness’ in his son — now a diver himself — to the thousands of hours spent in nature. Foster still dives everyday, but he doesn’t do that alone. He has founded the Sea Change Project, where many divers work in tandem to protect the biodiversity of the Kelp forest.

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