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I can only hope it gave people hope, says filmmaker on ‘My Octopus Teacher’

'My Octopus Teacher', the remarkable underwater love story, has inspired a string of memes, spoofs and even a mockumentary. Jonathan Ancer grilled the film’s supporting actor, Craig Foster, and its star, the pyjama-shark-dodging, shape-shifting, ink-squirting, fish-chasing, human-cuddling octopus

17 December 2020 - 20:20 By Jonathan Ancer

Editor’s note: This story was originally published earlier in 2020, and is being republished as part of the editors’ choice edition.



Why did you decide to let Craig into your world?

At first I thought it was a bunch of different people coming to visit because all bare-chested humans in board shorts look the same, but whenever I peeked out from under my rock he was there. I would retreat and wait for him to go away, but he never did. After a few weeks I realised that if I didn’t venture out and make friends with this determined human I would be stuck in my den for months — it would be like level 5 rockdown.

The documentary has gone around the world, making you a sea-lebrity. What do you think of that?

It’s a bit of a damp squid really. I’m a shy creature and although I like waves I don’t like to make waves.

What did you think of the film?

I loved it but wasn’t pleased that they filmed me getting intimate for the first time … I never wanted to be a prawn star.

One of the biggest debates among marine biologists is getting to grips with the plural of octopus. Can you shed light on the octopi-octopuses debate?

Some people are quick to shout “octopi, octopi” when anyone says “octopuses”, but the letter “i” for a plural noun applies to words with Latin roots. Octopus is derived from Greek, so the correct word would be “octopodes”, but grammar gurus agree that “octopuses” is fine. You have my permission to tell anyone who shouts “octopi, octopi” to octopus off.

What are you working on at the moment?

I will tell you, though, I was watching Sea-N-N and there was definitely a squid pro quo with Ukraine.

I’m writing a skop, squid en scallop whodunit about a famous detective called Kallie Mari who is hunting a murderous sea creature that has left a trail of dead bodies on the ocean floor.

Oooh, and who is the sea-rial killer?

It turns out that it’s a once much-loved octopus whose whole undersea was his oyster but he went rogue. His name is Octopustorius. Fortunately, Kallie Mari’s long arms of the law eventually catches up with him and he ends up in the can.

The US election is around the corner. Can you channel your clairvoyant powers and predict who will win?

You’re confusing me with Paul the psychic octopus. Unlike humans, octopuses do not all look alike. Anyway, I hope it’s not the orange guy. He thinks he can just grab us by the octopussy. I’m an Octopus vulgaris; he’s just a vulgaris. I will tell you, though, I was watching Sea-N-N and there was definitely a squid pro quo with Ukraine.

You should stand for the election. I’ll vote for you.

Cool. I’ll be the first OCTOPOTUS.

The filmmaker in the sea.
The filmmaker in the sea.
Image: Craig Foster

Do you have a motto you live by?

Carpe diem, which is Latin for both “seas the day” and “seize the carp”.

You’re kraken me up. OK, what’s your favourite movie?

Oceans 11.

Speaking of movies, I heard a rumour that you are working on a sea-quel to My Octopus Teacher called My Human Teacher?

No way.

Damn. The hake news media got it wrong again.

No offence, but I don’t think there’s anything good to learn from humans.

Is it because you don’t have a bad bone in your body and humans are evil creatures who are destroying the planet?

No. It’s because you lot are obsessed with awful puns. Stop it already.

I’m sorry, I can’t kelp it. I’m a sucker for puns. The sea is full of your foes, salivating at the gills to munch on some octopus-pie. How do you survive?

When I leave my den I make sure I’m well-armed — if being four-armed is four-warned, I’m eight-warned. I’ve also learnt to keep my friends close and my anemones even closer.

Now who’s making terrible puns?

I can get away with it because I’m a cute and loveable octopus. You’re a human.

Am I? Am I? I’ve got two forearms, doesn’t that make me an octopus?

One more pun and I’ll ink you.

Ok. No more puns, but please can I have next week’s PowerBall numbers…

Go away.

Octopuses are boneless and can squeeze into (or out of) tight spaces.
Octopuses are boneless and can squeeze into (or out of) tight spaces.
Image: Craig Foster



Why do you think 'My Octopus Teacher' has touched so many people in such a profound way?

It’s been a difficult time [during lockdown] and I think everyone is looking for something more meaningful and sensitive, something that makes them feel better, perhaps that’s why. Every person takes away something from a film that speaks more to their internal situation and issues. I can only hope it gave people hope, and for the period of watching took them away from any challenges they might be facing.

Did you realise what an impact this documentary would have?

When you make a film you try do it to the best of your ability and as authentically as possible, and at the time you don’t wonder about audience reactions. Of course, you hope for it to be received well, but the audience reaction has been way beyond our expectations.

Although you played a leading role in the documentary, you seem more comfortable in the background than in the limelight; what has it been like to be thrust into the spotlight?

It’s been quite difficult. This is bigger than anything I have ever experienced and since I am in the film everyone focuses on that. The film works the way it does because it was a huge team effort of amazing people who came together and collaborated beautifully. I am deeply grateful for all the love and support, but having all that energy focused on you is also a little exhausting and when it’s not something you have ever been faced with … it’s daunting.

You founded the Sea Change Project (SCP) with Ross Frylinck in 2012. Can you tell us about it?

We want to make the Great African Sea Forest a global icon, and by getting that attention hopefully we can work towards its long-term protection. We are keen to start our outreach programmes in SA with children so they become aware of this wonder on their doorstep. It would be absolutely wonderful if we can inspire future marine biologists and explorers.

What is the philosophy that underpins the SCP’s motto, “Remember you are wild?”

Basically that we are all nature. That we are a part of her and not apart from her. That deep nature immersion nourishes the body, the mind and the spirit.

Craig Foster swims with the octopus that taught him, among other things, that we can survive great trauma. Describing the mollusc’s death in his film, he has to choke back tears of grief.
Craig Foster swims with the octopus that taught him, among other things, that we can survive great trauma. Describing the mollusc’s death in his film, he has to choke back tears of grief.
Image: Ross Frylinck

You were suffering from burnout when you turned to the ocean for inspiration — even if it came at freezing temperatures. Can you describe the role this played in your healing?

There’s a whole lot of scientific material on the benefits of cold-water swimming. The cold was incredible in that it woke me up. It started to upgrade my immunity, made me alert, made me aware, stronger and fitter, and it’s incredibly beneficial for conditions like depression and anxiety. Being in that environment allows you to be absolutely present. It’s meditative. You feel each moment and live each moment fully and that’s immensely important for your mind and spirit.

What’s it like plunging into the icy waters?

It’s breathtaking, literally, you lose your breath for the first few minutes and, depending on the temperatures, your skin can actually burn. But if you push through you get this fantastic window where you are energised and it’s wonderful. Everyone must approach it gently and work their way towards adapting to the cold, you don’t want to get hypothermic.

You’ve dived the Cape kelp forests every day for almost a decade; how did you manage during the hard lockdown?

That was difficult. I have a saltwater aquarium with animals who require food from the ocean so I had all the forms and permissions required to be in the ocean from time to time to collect water and food.

What was it about you that made the octopus trust you?

I have no idea because that would be speaking for her. Speaking for me, perhaps it was a sense of realising I was no danger after the first few times I dived. Maybe she was just extra curious and her instincts ruled me out as a threat after I did nothing to approach her aggressively or enter her territory in clumsy ways. Every moment she chose to engage was entirely of her own free will. It was always her choosing to either come towards me or follow me or even make contact.

Octopuses are ocean creatures that are most famous for having eight arms and bulbous heads.
Octopuses are ocean creatures that are most famous for having eight arms and bulbous heads.
Image: Craig Foster

The documentary is about what you learnt from the octopus; do you think she learnt anything from you?

Again, it’s hard to speak for her and really there is nothing we can teach a wonderful wild sentience. I always respected she was wild, so I never made any attempts to habituate her with food or contact or anything we might do with animals we are trying to train or teach. I really just mostly observed and learnt. She was my teacher… not the other way around.

How did you know you were observing the same octopus and not a whole lot of different octopuses — don’t octopuses look alike?

Yes, it’s hard to differentiate between them usually, but they don’t share dens, are solitary and for the longest time she was in the same area/spot/den. Also, once you have spent time with an animal you totally start seeing her in detail that then does differentiate her from others — size, certain markings, your own intuition, but most importantly because of her reaction and acceptance of me every time. Most octopuses would stay away and hide.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about octopuses?

I don’t know. Maybe that it’s just a mollusc and so not that dynamic a personality? I think people have a fascination for octopuses but may not be aware of the range of their intelligence and behaviour.

Have you developed bonds with other marine creatures?

I have wonderful encounters but nothing like that. That bond was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What do you hope the documentary will achieve?

Global recognition for this wonderful ecosystem, an understanding of precious wild places and wild animals, and how our very existence is directly dependent on the natural world.

Octopuses have three hearts and blue blood; they squirt ink to deter predators.
Octopuses have three hearts and blue blood; they squirt ink to deter predators.
Image: Craig Foster

What did you think of the 'My Kreepy Teacher' spoof?

It made the entire team laugh. It was so well done and it’s hugely complimentary when people go through the hard work of producing something like that based on a film you and your team have created.

One cartoon had a speech bubble from the octopus that reads: “Every Netflix subscriber knows about our affair, Craig. When are you telling your wife?” What did your wife think of your relationship with the octopus?

My wife is my greatest support. She’s a wildlife and conservation action person herself. I would come back from my dives and share everything with her. She nearly drowned as a child and had a fear of water but has worked to overcome that and now swims and dives with me every day. She’s also part of the SCP and was involved in every aspect of this film from day one.

Spider-Man’s foe Dr Octopus gives him a hard time with only four mechanical arms. How would you do things differently if you had eight arms?

I am glad to only have two! It takes immense dexterity to operate eight arms — and an octopus can manipulate each of those arms separately at the same time; that requires a whole different mental wiring.