“An octopus is an alien.”
So starts the narration of the new Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher. In this visually stunning and scientifically fascinating video, filmmaker Craig Foster shares his experience of self-discovery and learning with a female octopus that adopted him off the southern coast of South Africa in the Great Kelp Forest.
Foster tells the tale of how he was very down on his work, and needed something to bring him out of his funk. He says he felt as if his failures and disappointments with his job were bleeding over into his personal life, making him unable to be the father he wanted to be to his son. He needed something to bring him inspiration, so he decided to return to the Cape of Storms area of South Africa, where he grew up. One day, while snorkeling, he came across what appeared to be a pile of shells. Some fish were also closely examining the shells, when all of a sudden, out of the center of a pile, an octopus emerged. Foster followed the octopus back to its den and began what would become a year-long exploration of octopus behavior, self-realization, and appreciation of nature.
My Octopus Teacher is an excellent documentary that puts octopus behavior and their intelligence on display. From hiding inside a pile of shells to lie in wait for a fish, to using the same technique to hide from an aggressive pajama shark, this film does an excellent job of showing just how smart these cephalopods are. Foster witnesses the octopus making split-second decisions, which are needed to save its life. The film follows this female octopus for just over a year, until she mates, lays her eggs, and dies. During this time, Foster saw, and filmed, several examples of how the octopus is able to camouflage itself to hide in its surroundings. It was able to change texture, to look like a rock; color, to blend in with algae; and even shape, to look like a stone on the seafloor. Each of these behaviors really exemplifies the intelligence of these animals and how well-developed their nervous systems are.
This is not a typical nature documentary, in that it “stars” and is narrated by the same person who filmed it. Foster spends a lot of time talking to the camera about his journey and how he developed a deep passion for the undersea world and, in particular, for this octopus. Several scenes show the octopus not only recognizing him, but also swimming directly into his arms and using its tentacles to touch his face. It is sort of like a love story between the two species. In fact, as the film comes to a close, showing and describing the octopus’s death, Foster breaks down in tears. He truly had concern for this animal.
My Octopus Teacher will enhance any biology, marine biology, or AP Biology class. Being on Netflix, it does require a subscription, but most teachers likely have a personal account already. There is nothing in the film that is objectionable, although some students may feel as if the storytelling moves too slowly. Teachers should emphasize the science behind the film, and have students record the various behaviors they witness. They could then dig deeper into each of these behaviors in the primary literature to find out more about them. Is the octopus in the film unique in exhibiting these behaviors? Are they common across octopus species? Teachers could expand on the learning opportunities in the film in many different ways.
This film would be a great addition to any life science curricula. It provides a great ecological message, saying that humans need to be part of the oceans, not just visitors. Wild animals are vulnerable, and we humans need to do everything we can to protect them. In fact, Foster takes this message so seriously that he created a foundation called the Sea Change Project that is dedicated to protecting the Great Kelp Forest of South Africa.