Learning to Love the Octopus
An extraordinary new documentary called ‘My Octopus Teacher’ taught me to turn the tables on an old family story.
This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.
I confess I never warmed to our friend the octopus. I like to think I’m as animal-friendly as the next person, but for this cephalopod I’ve reserved the categories of enemy and dinner.
My uncharitable attitude turned on an old family tale. When I was 6 or 7, my grandmother told me the eye-popping story of a trip to the beach in the early 1920s when she said a giant octopus crawled from the North Pacific with an eye to pulling my toddler mother into the surf for a meal. During the dozen years I lived in Japan as an adult, I turned the tables, devouring tako for its pleasantly rubbery flesh with a predator’s delight.
Then the other day I streamed an extraordinary new Netflix film called My Octopus Teacher, and my anti-octopus biases vanished in the flick of a tentacle.
The cinematography is gorgeous — rugged seascapes near Cape Town, South Africa, blaze with light and color while below, in a cold, turbulent pocket of ocean, the denizens of a kelp forest get on with their tribal struggles. But it’s the story of a seemingly bizarre relationship that hangs your standard nature documentary out to dry.
Nursing a midlife crisis, filmmaker Craig Foster goes free diving in this challenging spot, looking for relief, and chances on an iridescent, shapeshifting octopus with the body mass of a cantaloupe. Captivated by her obvious intelligence, Foster undertakes to visit her each day for a year to make what he can of her life and how it informs his own.
A man on an existential errand, Foster is sincere, curious and self-questioning — an appealing human. He doesn’t anthropomorphize his new friend with a cutesy pet name; he simply calls her “She.” But it’s She who steals the show. Her gifts for disguise and elusion, driven by lightning-quick wits, are astounding.
In one scene she hunches into a ball, decorating herself with seashells, to pass as a rocky lump out of which she’ll explode to seize her prey. In another, to evade her mortal enemy the pyjama shark, she rockets through the water, tentacles streaming and then — surprise! — breaks surface to plop herself onshore where no shark can follow.
Her habitat is as alien a place as you’re likely to find without leaving the planet. Foster tells us, for example, that two-thirds of her cognitive abilities are vested outside her brain in her long, sucker-studded arms. And therein lies the beauty of My Octopus Teacher for the way it manages to close the phylogenetic distances by spotlighting them.
What is “She” thinking, for example, when she extends an arm so her suckers can examine Foster’s camera lens? She seems as curious about her visitor as he is about her. It’s impossible to tell if the octopus feels anything like empathy for Foster, yet she plainly trusts him, wrapping a tentacle around his finger in greeting or climbing onto his arm for a ride to the surface.
Watching the film, I began to feel a retroactive remorse. As a kid, I fished the saltwater inlets of Puget Sound, aping the hunter-gatherer narratives of my frontier-dwelling forebears, stories in which sea monsters inhabited chasms of the deep. And then, of course, there was the octopus that allegedly tried to eat my mother.
In my grandmother’s telling, her golden-haired tot was minding her kitten when the “devilfish” rolled from the sea. In the ensuing commotion, the creature wrapped a tentacle around the cat instead of my mother, and broke for home before my grandfather stopped the intruder at the water’s edge with the business end of a logger’s pike.
A family story can be as encrusted with false drama as sunken treasure is with barnacles.
And a photo my grandmother snapped of the octopus nailed to the wall of their cabin in the British Columbia wilds supplies only partial evidence. Whatever the case, the story instilled in me dark thoughts similar to those Emily Dickinson harbored about snakes:
Several of Nature’s People, I know, and they know me I feel for them a transport Of Cordiality But never met this Fellow Attended or alone Without a tighter Breathing And Zero at the Bone.
To his credit, Foster avoids the old baggage. Instead, he focuses on the intelligence and coherence of a dangerously magnificent world. For fear of intruding on nature’s cycle, he fights his urge to protect “She” from the elegantly striped pyjama sharks that glide through the kelp forest looking for a protein meal. It’s only after a shark gnaws off one of her arms, and she grows too weak to hunt, that Foster knifes open a shellfish to feed her.
Anthropomorphic of me, I know, but at this point I was rooting for full-on human intervention.
I’m glad my mother didn’t get eaten by an octopus; this column would have been a lot harder to write otherwise. And yet, for all the times I’ve retold my grandmother’s story over the years, I could never see it from the octopus point of view. Knowing what I now know about the species, though, only strengthens my belief that our learning about the things of this world, and unlearning our prejudices, pivots on our capacity for shifting our perspective.
That’s why I sometimes read for my students W.S. Merwin’s poem “Dog Dreaming.” It’s just possible that the family dog, snoozing on its bed, can remind us of what we’ve forgotten about our 20,000-year human-canine bond:
The paws twitch in a place of chasing Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature Rings out terrible, chasing tigers. The fields Are licking like torches, full of running … Such carnage and triumph; standing there Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only A sleeping beast knows who you are.
As I say, My Octopus Teacher doesn’t uncloak the mystery of octopus empathy, but it invoked tender feelings in me. The knowledge that “She” and her kind, the common octopus or Octopus vulgaris, live only about a year, for example, seemed so tragic. All that intelligence and ingenuity invested in such a fleeting life?
But there I go being anthropomorphic again. It helps that Foster struggles with human impulses, too. For him, however, the kelp forest, with its hard realities, isn’t a stage set for good vs. evil but an inclusive metaphor — a “giant underwater brain” that directs life in its manifold forms, of which “She,” and those she hunts and is hunted by, are at once brief but enduring archetypes.
In the end, My Octopus Teacher inspired me. After all, if we can learn to love an octopus, maybe our human limits aren’t as limiting as we thought.