The incomparable weirdo that is the octopus

A new documentary takes the viewer on an exquisite underwater adventure with one of biology’s strangest creations

October 09, 2020
Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

It's become a cliché in 2020 to lament the current state of the world—specifically, to remind everyone what a bad year we’re having. These reminders often feel unnecessary, brow-beaten and exhausting, like the small-talk we’d have with neighbours during the final days of “clap for carers.” But that doesn’t make them less true. The fact is, 2020 has been a bad, bad year, and as it winds to a close it’s not getting better. Coronavirus deaths have passed one million and a second wave is about to crash over Europe. Politicians have been limp and disordered in their efforts to prevent it. Climate change continues to accelerate and the Amazon is burning. The less said about the US election, the better. What, if anything, can raise our spirits at this relentlessly depressing time? What might help flatten the curve of our collective anxiety spiral? An answer that lies in pop culture has to be taken with an entire bucket of salt. But on a small, 90-minute scale, one rebuff might be found under the waves and on our screens. Enter the octopus.

Craig Foster's documentary My Octopus Teacher (Netflix, out now) is a big-hearted, many-tentacled story which swims into focus at a perfect time. Filmed in the Western Cape over the course of a year, it describes the real-life friendship between a diver and a wild octopus. The film has all the ingredients for a dose of lockdown escapism. Stunning panoramas of the South African coast provide an antidote to grey-sky staycations. Underwater close-ups, poetic narration and a watery soundscape create an atmosphere of meditation and connection. (“You just have to relax, and then you get this beautiful window of about 10 to 15 minutes,” says Foster of diving. “Then your whole body comes alive, and as it adapts, it becomes easier… You fly, basically.”) And at the centre of the film is a heart-warming love-story: depressed man befriends clever cephalopod. In a world which seems bereft of empathy and understanding, stories like this provide hope. There are other species out there with a braincell left. They don’t always hate us. We haven’t ruined everything, not yet.

My Octopus Teacher begins with the backstory of Foster, whose passion for nature was inspired by his childhood by the sea and observing animal trackers in the central Kalahari. He talks—more relatably—about the pressures of modern living and feeling disconnected from the natural world. This is a neat opener, establishing an emotional focus as well as Foster’s background as a filmmaker. Yet the success of the film lies in him quickly disappearing behind the lens, allowing space for the animal to take centre stage. Over the following 90 minutes, we watch as the octopus tentatively emerges from its den—a rock at the base of the seabed— to reveal its life in the cold-water kelp forest. One reason to watch this documentary is for the soothing underwater scenery. But the main reason is for the animal itself. There is perhaps no creature on earth more mysterious, interesting and funny than the incomparable weirdo that is the octopus.

As the philosopher and diver Peter Godfrey-Smith writes in his book Other Minds, the octopus “is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” (Amia Srinivasan penned a magisterial London Review of Booksarticle riffing on that book in 2017—both are essential reading.) A boneless invertebrate which has three hearts and eight legs, which thinks and tastes through its arms and can see through its skin, this cephalopod seems strikingly different to us. But there is evidence to show that—like us—octopuses have a degree of self-awareness, or at least (as Srinivasan puts it) “rich subjective experience.” They seem to know when they are in captivity, in some cases plugging their tanks with their arms in order to flood laboratories. They can recognise different humans and react to them accordingly: squirting water in offense or curling out an invitational feeler. They can navigate mazes, open jars, and put on light shows through their skin, sometimes possibly for their own entertainment. And they have been known to grab the hands of divers, pulling them along the sea floor in a gesture which seems like playing. All of this suggests that octopuses have the ability to behave not only for the sake of figuring things out, but according to an unpredictable, exploratory curiosity. As the Roman naturalist Claudius Aelianus observed, they act on principles of "mischief and craft."

There’s another word for this behaviour—creativity—and it’s one we tend to associate exclusively with humans, especially children. In Foster’s documentary, watching the octopus squirm playfully around its natural habitat, it’s easy to spot a resemblance to a human child. (It has half a billion neurons, roughly the same number as a three-year-old.) Indeed, Foster makes implicit links to his own son, who becomes a trainee diver towards the end of the film and accompanies his father to the underwater forest. “One of the most exciting things in my life was taking my son and showing him the details and the intricacies of nature,” Foster says. “I was getting so much from the wild that I had the energy to give back.” So the cycle becomes complete. Foster's connection with the mysterious seascape ultimately becomes a metaphor for the mysteries of offspring and inheritance, of receiving and passing on, of being part of a network representative of something greater.

Netflix has a hit and miss ratio when it comes to documentaries. Its true crime offerings drip with sleaze, often to the point of ethical compromise. (See: The Ted Bundy TapesDon't F**k with Cats, Abducted in Plain Sight.) Its celebrity-led ventures can cause controversy, as with Zac Efron's Down To Earth, which has been flagged for its questionable interpretation of the word “science.” (Efron’s explanation of taking the channel tunnel is, however, highly recommended; one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.) Nature and food documentaries seem a safer way forward for Netflix as they clearly play to its strengths. Big budgets allow for lavish cinematography, precise narrative mapping and long development periods, and while Netflix’s desire for emotional drama gets in the way with true crime, in nature docs it’s possible to pair scientific insight with artistic and emotional vision in a way which feels—relatively—low risk. My Octopus Teacher fits this mould nicely.

During the course of filming, Foster spent every day with the octopus for a year—a period constituting most of the animal’s life. The resulting footage is as incredible as you’d expect. Though the film has been criticised for its lack of scientific “explainers,” the pure joy of seeing the animal going about its business means an Attenborough voiceover isn’t necessary. It lifts up its feelers to play with a school of fish, like it is conducting an orchestra. It covers itself in shells. It sneaks out at night to hunt for food, quickly figuring out how best to entrap an elusive lobster. A jaw-dropping sequence in which the octopus appears to outwit a pyjama shark would give Machiavelli something to write home about. And its interaction with Foster is extraordinary too. Furling a feeler around his finger, spores suckling and unsticking, she—it’s a she, by the way—learns not just to recognise but trust Foster over the course of several months. As this trust is cemented, things progress steadily. Soon, she is flying out to greet him when he comes down to visit, curling into his arms and caressing his chest. He strokes her leathery head. His mask fogs up above his snorkel.

Reader: if you think this sounds in any way erotic, you'd be forgiven. Sometimes the film is distractingly, even comically, suggestive. When Foster refers to “the last time we had physical contact,” it’s hard to suppress an alarmed eyebrow, and close-ups of Foster’s face as he gazes lustfully out towards the sea (narration: “I couldn’t stop thinking about her”) are more than enough to make a schoolboy smirk. All of this is not helped by the title which, let’s be honest, makes it sound like specialist anime. So it’s unsurprising that the Twittersphere—always horny for ridicule—has zoned in on this issue, with one thread debating whether spore-suckling counts as a form of octopus sex and therefore bestiality. Answer: not really.

This deflection is a shame, because even with the dodgy title, the documentary goes far beyond weirdness and ultimately depicts an intensely meaningful relationship. It seems cynical, even cruel, to reduce this to a joke, and the world doesn’t need any more of that. What it does need is what Foster provides: a story that gives hope for the future. A break from the news. An underwater adventure. An exquisite lyrical insight into something random, rare and beautiful. It’s worth paying attention to these stories while they’re being told, and—confined to our houses or otherwise—while we still have time.