‘My Octopus Teacher’: A Love Letter to the Perfection of Nature

April 26, 2021

I have intense arachnophobia—I hate anything that’s got eight, fast-moving legs. This fear used to extend to the similarly eight-legged octopus. Then, one day my brother brought home some octopus sushi and ate it.

I forced myself to try a piece. Tasty! My horror of the octopus family instantaneously evaporated. I began to find octopi fascinating, hilarious, and adorable. Thanks to the stunningly beautiful documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” I now love them.

What’s become apparent via a myriad social media posts is that the vast majority of animals enjoy a good animal-human cuddle. My favorite is a leopard enjoying a head-scratch, using its giant paws to maneuver its hooman’s hand: “More scratches on this spot here please,” all the while emitting industrial-strength purring, like an idling Camaro.

What this film reveals is that a wild octopus (which is a mollusk, basically a shell-less snail) is unbelievably intelligent, and also likes a good human-cephalopod cuddle. Which makes you wonder whether there isn’t something to the Buddhist concept that many animals are really incarnated human spirits who got shunted down a few levels due to an overabundance of karma.

Healing Via Octopus

Told from South African filmmaker Craig Foster’s perspective, “My Octopus Teacher” is about his transformative relationship with a common octopus that he discovered living in a little rock cave near the beach bungalow where his family stayed when he was a child. Foster had spent countless hours playing in the nearby tide pools and diving in the shallow kelp forests that are home to a vast array of marine flora and fauna.

This is the first documentary to chronicle almost the entire lifespan of a solitary ocean-dwelling animal, and in so doing, describes the storyteller’s personal healing (due to that animal) as well as showcases animal behaviors previously unknown to even marine biologists.

The story kicks off in an area off South Africa’s Western Cape. The ocean is primal and powerful there, but the otherwise dangerous currents are thwarted by a thick kelp forest that creates a relatively calm sanctuary. The water however, is freezing—below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s this rare, challenging world that Foster hopes will cure his midlife crisis. He outdoes Navy SEALs by free-diving and snorkeling in swim trunks, without the use of a rubber wetsuit or scuba breathing apparatus. As he says, one eventually comes to crave the invigorating cold, which “upgrades the brain.” He also doesn’t want to disturb the environment or impose his presence in any way.

Foster explains that he turned to diving, one of his main childhood joys, when he came to this crossroads. He’d burned himself out as a filmmaker—physically, emotionally, and mentally—and was unsure of his next step in life. He had nothing left to give in art or in his human relations.

The desire to heal himself, in order to be a strong presence in his son Tom’s life, led him to this drastic measure of what archetypally is an extended, underwater, oceanic version of a vision quest.

A vision quest was the boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage for most Native American tribes. It’s four days and four nights in a 10-foot circle, with no food. For modern folks, that’s also no phone, no computer, no books, no writing utensils, no tent, and no people around. Uncomfortability and deprivation are paramount.

In the silence, nature teaches the quester.

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