Or, “The Call of the Wild” underwater
My Octopus Teacher, a 2020 Netflix Original documentary, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, might already be the most watched and talked about cephalopod drama since Kirk Douglas fought the giant squid in the 1954 Walt Disney epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the 1870 Jules Verne novel of the same title.
South African filmmaker Craig Foster owes more to Jack London, though, than to either Disney or Verne, or anyone else who has produced literature of any sort centering on creatures with tentacles.
The Craig Foster persona in My Octopus Teacher is that of John Thornton in The Call of The Wild (1903), who retreats into the Yukon bush after the death of his young son leads to the dissolution of his marriage. Thornton eventually befriends Buck, a stolen and previously abused mastiff-forced-to-become-sled-dog who, following Thornton’s death, leads a wolf pack.
The Call of the Kelp Forest
Foster’s octopus teacher is, consciously or unconsciously, modeled after Labiskwee, the half-Native American woman who starves herself to feed and save the Arctic Circle adventurer Smoke Ballew in the London story Wonder of Woman (1912).
But the octopus teacher, like female octopi for more than 400 million years, starves herself while tending her babies, after a lifespan rarely exceeding one year.
Foster experienced personal and professional burnout, marital failure, and felt he was losing his son after his work as cinematographer for the cave exploration documentary Into The Dragon’s Lair, set in Botswana; director of the Kalahari desert documentary My Hunter’s Heart; and director of the television nature series Wild Walk, all released in 2010.
Foster retreated to his boyhood home at False Bay, near Cape Town, and to his earlier-in-life routine of daily swims in the kelp forest thriving in the cold sea water there.
“A young octopus who displays remarkable curiosity”
In the kelp forest, summarizes the Netflix publicity for My Octopus Teacher, Foster became acquainted with “a young octopus who displays remarkable curiosity. Visiting her den and tracking her movements for months on end, he eventually wins the animal’s trust, and they develop a never before seen bond between human and wild animal.”
That may be a bit of an exaggeration, in view that the “bond” goes no farther than Foster allowing the octopus to grab his fingers, between his own trips to the surface for a gulp of air, and the octopus later resting on his chest, a rare source of warmth in the otherwise cold environment.
My Octopus Teacher “was ten years in the making,” adds Wikipedia.
During that time Foster produced a book, Sea Change – Primal Joy and the Art of Underwater Tracking; co-founded the Sea Change Project, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting the kelp forest; and identified eight shrimp species previously not scientifically catalogued, including Heteromysis Fosteri, named for himself.
None of that, though, is what makes My Octopus Teacher a uniquely compelling film. The star is not really the octopus, whose part over a 10-year time frame must have been played by many octopi, even if the story line remains true to the history of Foster’s first octopus friend.
Foster is the star, to the extent there is one. He swims without a wetsuit and dives with only a snorkel, not scuba tanks, in the belief that risking freezing and drowning will impart to him a better understanding of the kelp forest habitat, even though using just the snorkel limits his underwater time to only two or three minutes at a stretch.
Foster argues that working without artificial extensions of his natural abilities sharpens his observations and tracking skills, much as going barefoot sharpens the abilities of the bush people he has videotaped on tracking expeditions in the Kalahari.
Cutting to the chases
Foster comes across as intensely dedicated, but just a bit cracked, uttering the word “incredible” an incredible number of times. And the arrival of his son to join him in octopus observation, toward the end of My Octopus Teacher, seems sweet but awkward.
Foster’s underwater photography is, however, superb. Further, Foster’s narration manages to build drama in the interactions of octopus, crab, lobster, and octopus-eating pajama sharks without coming across as a latter day Marlon Perkins, Jim Fowler, Jeff Corwin, or Steve Irwin, whose presence in wildlife habitat tends to be exploitative, no matter how many paeans they utter to leaving nature undisturbed.
My Octopus Teacher features several chase scenes. In one, the octopus loses a tentacle to a pyjama shark, but regrows the tentacle during several weeks in hiding, clearly suffering. This builds toward the climactic chase, in which the octopus employs one intelligent ruse after the next to evade a determined pyjama shark.
Sharks, calamari & the Buddha
These scenes render all the more poignant how the octopus surrenders, after her babies disperse into the kelp forest, to nibbling by fish she would earlier have eaten, brittle stars she formerly hurled away, and finally a pyjama shark who scoops her up without meeting any resistance.
Bearing in mind that cephalopods––octopi, squid, and cuttlefish––were the most intelligent and probably the dominant forms of life on our planet for nearly twice as long as any complex vertebrates have existed, one may project that these creatures have evolved and pass along some sort of deep understanding of life and their role in it that facilitates their acquiescence to death when their time comes.
But there is no way to test whether there is anything more to this hypothesis than our being humans who have at times contemplated statues of the Buddha while awaiting service at a Chinese restaurant, preferably one that does not serve calamari.
Testimonials & film link
Testimonials to the excellence of My Octopus Teacher come from, among a multitude of others, former American Humane Association film division director Gini Barrett, who calls it “Wonderful! My favorite film of the year!”; ANIMALS 24-7 board member Margaret Anne Cleek, who finds it a “Beautifully executed, wonderful break from current chaos”; biology professor Robert Schmidt, who wonders “if, after watching this moving story, people decide they shouldn’t eat these creatures”; and ANIMALS 24-7 visual arts editor Beth Clifton, who adds “If you haven’t had the opportunity to watch this documentary, here is the link to view the entire film at no cost.”
Science agrees: octopi have personality
There is more to be said.
While fans of My Octopus Teacher may be accused of anthropomorphizing, as Craig Foster has himself has been accused, the well-respected New York Times Magazine science writer Charles Siebert on January 22, 2006 extensively discussed studies of octopus personality done at the Seattle Aquarium since 1991 by staff scientist Roland Anderson and University of Lethbridge psychologist Jennifer Mather.
A 1993 Anderson and Mather’ paper entitled “Personalities of Octopuses,” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Comparative Psychology, was not only the “first-ever documentation of personality in invertebrates,” Siebert wrote. “It was the first time in anyone’s memory that the term ‘personality’ had been applied to a nonhuman in a major psychology journal.”
Since then, Siebert continued, “a whole new field of research has emerged known simply as ‘animal personality.’ Through close and repeated observations of different species in a variety of group settings and circumstances, scientists are finding that our own behavioral traits exist in varying degrees and dimensions among creatures across all the branches of life’s tree.”
“The Search for the Giant Squid”
Perhaps the best book about cephalopods written for non-scientists, to that point, was The Search for the Giant Squid, by Richard Ellis (1998), in which Ellis made a convincing case that most of the best-documented “sea serpent” and other “sea monster” sightings of the past 450 years were actually sightings of architeuthis, the giant squid.
Architeuthis sightings might also have accounted for the Norse legend of the kraken, a tentacled creature reputedly big and fierce enough to devour entire ships full of armored Viking warriors.
Architeuthis has in fact been known to science from tangible specimens since 1545, and was formally identified as a species by Japetus Steenstrup in 1854.
The size and shape of a giant squid, Ellis argued, tends to be so unfamiliar to most viewers that partial views are easily misread.
“Kill the beast!”
Walt Disney Presents had actually made the same case, with much of the same illustrative material, in a 1954 episode assembled to promote the release of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
To this, however, Ellis added documentation of the repeated response of humans to encountering cephalopods: “Kill the beast!”
Some kill cephalopods for science, some for perceived sale value, some to eat, some for bait, some for dog food, some for sheer sport, and some as an imagined threat, though there is no authenticated record of a cephalopod, even a giant squid, ever harming any person.
Hardly anyone seems content to just observe nature, as Foster observes his small octopus friend; each, rather, must make the animal a trophy. In the case of giant squid, this brings repetitively predictable failure, as ropes secured around each carcass accidentally netted by deep sea fishers, or found floating, inevitably cut it into pieces as soon as it is lifted above the supporting sea, leaving most of the remains to sink back into the depths.
Land-based investigation meanwhile suggests that much as birds are descended directly from fearsome therapod dinosaurs, the cephalopods of today might have had kraken-like ancestors.
Paleontologists Mark McMenamin and his wife Dianna Schulte-McMenamin, of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, in 2011 described to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America how vertebrae from the orca-like ichthyosaur Shonisaurus popularis found in Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Nevada are arranged in a pattern resembling the bones, shells, and other debris from predation often found around the entrances to octopus dens.
“Shonisaurus popularis was a school-bus-size, flippered marine reptile who lived during the Triassic period, 250 million to 200 million years ago,” wrote Stephanie Pappas for LiveScience. “Today’s giant squid are known to battle it out with sperm whales, as evidenced by tentacle scars found on whales and squid found in whale stomachs.”
The McMenamins contended at the time, Pappas continued, that “The bone arrangements could be the earliest evidence of cephalopod intelligence.”
Since then, the McMenamins have found evidence of a second such pattern in photographs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Museum of Natural History of how an ichthyosaur fossil was discovered.
Summarized Pappas, “Next to the ichthyosaur was a debris pile of scattered bones that were no longer in their proper place in the skeleton. Off to the side was a double row of vertebrae in the same configuration as McMenamin and his colleagues had seen in [Berlin-Ichthyosaur Park] remains.
“The rib cage of the museum specimen shows damage, as if something — perhaps the tentacles of a giant deep-sea monster? — had constricted them in a bear hug.”
Returning to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, the McMenamins two years later found an object that they believe is a fossilized squid beak. The beak would be the only part of a cephalopod hard enough to be likely to fossilize under all but the most unusual of circumstances, such as those that preserved the 500-million-year-old invertebrates found at the Burgess Shale formation in British Columbia.
The McMenamins’ hypothesis is scarcely universally accepted. But the McMenamins have a history of being a bit ahead of the curve, including in finding paleontological support for the theories of Lynn Margulis (1938-2011).
The first wife of astronomer Carl Sagan, Margulis after their divorce stepped out of Sagan’s shadow to become the leading scientific advocate for the importance of symbiosis, or biological cooperation, as an engine of evolution.
Where the model of evolution advanced by Charles Darwin emphasized competition among individuals and species, Margulis pointed out instance after instance, beginning at the cellular level, in which species learning to cooperate gained a survival advantage over those who could not.
Clearly, if the McMenamins are right about who killed the ichthyosaurs, these largest and most dangerous of cephalopods did not survive into our time. But those cephalopods who did, like the common octopus depicted in My Octopus Teacher, included those who learned how to sometimes reach out and shake hands with a stranger, in agreement that a friend would not become a meal.