Human beings and nature – lessons from My Octopus Teacher

For relief from the disgusting spectacle of the US elections, I turned to My Octopus Teacher (released on Netflix September 2020). This documentary records an unlikely but fascinating bond that developed between a snorkeller off the South-West Coast of South Africa and an octopus he encountered while diving. It immediately resonated with me; it brought to mind an encounter I once had with an octopus some twenty years ago, which I still remember as one of the most fascinating things I ever saw while snorkelling.

Scorching Bay, Wellington Photo: Jonty Crane, Google Maps

I’d been swimming with my children at Scorching Bay in Seatoun, at the entrance to Wellington harbour, in New Zealand. When the kids got tired of swimming (which doesn’t take long in the chilly waters of Cook Strait) I put on mask and snorkel and headed for the rocks at the end of the beach. Although the water was very shallow and there were dozens of people swimming at this suburban beach less than a hundred metres away, there was a great variety of marine life among the rocks. The most interesting was an octopus. It was so shallow I hardly had to dive, and could watch it while I was just floating on the surface, breathing through the snorkel. I followed it for about thirty minutes.

Common Octopus, Octopus Vulgaris

And the octopus was also watching me. It was wary of me, especially at first, when I came up for a close inspection, but after I retreated to the surface and floated there it just continued going about its business, clambering over the rocks and feeling into the crevices – keeping its strangely human-like eye fixed on me all the time. As it watched me, I had this strange sense of interacting with another sentient creature. Fish and other animals also responded to my presence – darting away into the shadows or keeping a certain distance, in ways that are highly predictable. But with this octopus, it seemed that the octopus was not just afraid of a possible predator, but was as curious about me as I was about it. Strange, because I knew that an octopus is an invertebrate, a mollusc that has jumped out of its shell. Among its near relatives are snails and oysters – not normally thought of as especially intelligent animals.

Craig Foster. Photo: Netflix

It was this same sense that struck Craig Foster, the creator of My Octopus Teacher, when he came across a young female Common Octopus, octopus vulgaris, in a kelp forest off the south-western coast of South Africa. But Foster did more than sense it; he pursued the idea, and the octopus, every day for a year. An experienced film-maker, he and his underwater cinematography team filmed this single octopus, documenting the behaviours she developed to find food – and to avoid becoming food: the area was full of predatory pyjama sharks. There were some hair-raising pursuits, as the octopus avoided these predators by various strategies and adaptations. Some of these adaptations are well-known, like the instantaneous changes of her body colour and surface texture to match her environment, and the incredible capacity an octopus has to squeeze itself into tiny crevices in the rocks, more fluid than solid. But other behaviours had apparently never been documented before, including hiding high among the kelp leaves, wrapping the fronds around her body with her suckers, or rolling into a ball like an armadillo – except that this armadillo was armoured with dozens of shells and stones, held in place by the suckers. She even climbed right out of the water and walked across exposed rocks at one point, to evade a shark.

The octopus-armadillo Photo: Netflix

Foster goes further, and actually explains the extraordinary intelligence of this animal: it is precisely the loss of its protective shell that sent the octopus along an evolutionary pathway towards finding any and every means other than armour for protecting and disguising itself from predators, including using ‘tools’ taken from its environment. These behaviours have to be learned – and learned quickly, because the common octopus only lives for a year. Moreover, they are solitary animals. The tiny babies hatch from the egg after the parent has died, and disperse into the water column – there is no parent that can teach them these techniques. All that biological evolution has endowed the octopus with is an extraordinary innate capacity to sense its environment through the constant explorations of its eight arms, to learn and to remember. Its ability to do this is all the more remarkable in that the animal’s body is its brain: although it has a central brain, most of its neural activity takes place in the arms, outside of the central brain.

The octopus stares back. Photo: Netflix

There is so much to be learned about the driving forces of animal evolution from this story, and in particular about convergent evolution, where organisms of different evolutionary descent evolve analogous features, organs and behaviours in response to similar evolutionary pressures. The remarkable camera-lens-type eye of the octopus, which closely resembles the eye of vertebrates in its basic structure despite the wide separation of their evolutionary lines of descent, is an outstanding example of convergent evolution. (The octopus eye differs vastly from the simple pinhole-camera-type eye of its closer relative the nautilus). Convergent evolution is one of the most compelling and elegant proofs of the fact of evolution by natural selection.

Convergent evolution: similar evolutionary pressures give rise to many similar forms among marsupial and eutherian (placental) mammals despite different lines of descent. Graphic: Pearson Education

But the most remarkable convergent evolution explored here is the evolution of the ability to learn. The evolutionary gulf between human beings and octopuses is so wide, it takes a feat of imagination to recognise that what these two species have in common is the evolutionary pressures of vulnerability. This feat of imagination is the greatest achievement of My Octopus Teacher.

The octopus extends a curious tentacle towards Foster. Photo: Netflix

Having no protective shell compels the octopus to develop and rely on its ability to sense its environment, adapt its behaviour to the particular details of the environment it finds itself in, and to adapt elements of that environment to its own use. The biological organs it has evolved to do this are the extraordinary eye, and above all, the most exquisite organ of touch of any animal, the eight arms and their 280 suckers.

It was this same condition – the lack of bodily armour and weaponry such as claws, predators’ teeth, great size and power, thick hide, or speed, in other words, the condition of being ill-equipped and poorly adapted to any particular environment ­– that propelled humanity along the evolutionary path of adapting the environment to itself, thereby becoming adaptable to almost any terrestrial environment. Human and octopus both became learners and thinkers for the same reasons.

Comparison of octopus and human eye structure. Despite close similarities, the main difference (nerves behind the photoreceptor cells in the octopus) indicate that the similarities did not arise from common descent, but rather, by convergent evolution.

My Octopus Teacher connects at another level as well, and this involves a different kind of vulnerability. Craig Foster explains that he began diving at an unhappy time in his life, when his relationship with his teenage son had reached a low point. His observations of the octopus are objective and scientific, but at the same time, deeply emotional – and the story produces the same emotional response in the viewer. He debates the merits ­and the futility of intervening to protect the octopus from her predators, including one occasion when he watches as a shark grabs hold of one of the octopus’s arms in her den, and tears it off.

There are some funny moments too – watching the octopus walk on two legs with the other six gathered up like a skirt, and when she plays with a school of tiny fish, herding them into a corner and then scattering them in confusion by throwing all of her arms up at once. Even the serious business of finding food is funny to watch, as the octopus learns (and fails comically at first) to catch lobsters. The longer his daily observations continued, the deeper became the emotional bond between Foster and the octopus – and the same is true for us as we watch it – right to the inevitable and heart-breaking end.

The African kelp forests. Photo: still from My Octopus Teacher

Foster says frankly that he fell in love with the octopus and her perilous world. He documents on video the indescribable beauty of the world of the kelp forests, and the joy of ‘flying’ through these forests in three dimensions in a way that only human beings who venture into the underwater world will ever experience. It is also a story about how the extraordinary bond between Foster and the octopus, and with the wild space in which she lived, enabled him to repair his relationships with the human world, in particular with his son. It is a sweet and touching story on that level as well. A more eloquent statement of the fact that human beings are a part of nature could hardly be imagined.

Kina barrens in Hauraki Gulf maritime Park, New Zealand. Richly diverse kelp forests once thrived in this area. Photo: Guardian.

The fact that these spectacular kelp forests remain totally unseen by the vast majority of people makes them especially prone to destruction, which is happening mainly as a secondary consequences of overfishing. Some of the shots from this film showed worryingly high numbers of sea-urchins, (called kina in New Zealand.) These animals graze the plants on the rocks of shallow sea regions. When the animals that predate the kina are overfished – and in the case of New Zealand these are chiefly the larger Snapper and rock lobsters, both of which species are seriously depleted by overfishing ­– then the kina populations grow to plague levels, denuding the rocks of their flora, including eventually the giant kelp which provide protection for such a richly diverse fauna that we get a glimpse of in this film. Veteran New Zealand divers Roger Grace and Wade Doak warned that many of the kelp forests off the north-eastern coast of New Zealand have already been reduced to sterile kina barrens, largely unseen and unnoticed.

My Octopus Teacher is produced by the Sea Change Project, which is dedicated to the preservation of the African kelp regions. It provides a compelling argument for the preservation of those spectacular unseen forests below the waves and their animal inhabitants, about which we still know so little.

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