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‘My Octopus Teacher’ shows rare bond between human and sea creature

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 22, 2021

Filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster interacts with an octopus off the coast of South Africa. Foster spent a year bonding with a female wild common octopus he encountered in a kelp forest in the Atlantic Ocean. He and other filmmakers created “My Octopus Teacher” to document that experience.  (Ross Frylinck/Sea Change Project)
Filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster interacts with an octopus off the coast of South Africa. Foster spent a year bonding with a female wild common octopus he encountered in a kelp forest in the Atlantic Ocean. He and other filmmakers created “My Octopus Teacher” to document that experience. (Ross Frylinck/Sea Change Project)
By Heather Djunga Special to the Washington Post

“A unique story of connection” is how South African filmmaker and naturalist Craig Foster refers to his underwater adventures with a female wild common octopus documented in the film “My Octopus Teacher.”

The Netflix film shows the bond that develops between Foster and the eight-legged creature during a year of diving in a kelp forest in the Atlantic Ocean. It won this year’s Academy Award and British Academy Film and Television Arts Award for best documentary.

Foster said he thinks that “My Octopus Teacher” has captured hearts worldwide because few of the many wonderful natural-history films are about a human’s relationship with the wild.

“I think people around the world are yearning to have some kind of real connection with the natural world, and this film speaks to that need,” he said.

Foster said he has had many such experiences with nature: “Having a fish swim into your hand, or a cuttlefish approach you, or an otter swim with you and reach out and touch you, are all such incredible gifts.”

Still, he said, these strong bonds weren’t easily forged, often requiring years of patience and perseverance. “I go into the water every day and spend a lot of time learning, studying and researching.”

Foster said he learned many lessons from the San masters, native people of South Africa’s Kalahari region.

“They taught me to track on land and to look for signs. I applied those same lessons to looking in the water,” he said.

Tracking involves knowing the animals well and recognizing their behavior and movements, Foster said.

“The San trackers learn to do what they do from childhood. They also rely on shared memories,” he said. “Connecting with nature is basically their lives, so one lifetime of mine would not be enough to explore the rich scope of what they know and can do.”

Observing his special octopus, part of a species known for its intelligence, has been a life-changing experience for Foster. One of the most remarkable moments was when the creature that initially hid in crevices allowed him to join her on a hunting expedition.

“When the same animal interacts with you every day over a long period of time, you can assume that there is trust involved.”

Foster said he learned that you can’t force this trust.

“Everything must happen at the animal’s pace, comfort and convenience,” he said. “In their eyes, we are big and predatory. They make themselves vulnerable in allowing us into their space because trusting the wrong human could mean death.

“So it’s an immense privilege when they show trust.”

Foster recommended the following on connecting with nature: Spend at least 20 minutes in nature every day. Feel the air you are breathing. Let your bare feet connect with the ground. If you are lucky to have a garden, spend time there. Most of the greatest explorers, wildlife filmmakers and writers started out curious about their own backyards.

Even if you live in a city, there are parks or trees that you can explore. Be curious. Be observant. Ask questions. Begin with learning the names of five of your local trees, five birds and five animals. See what you can find out about them.

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