A man, an octopus and lessons for our corona lives
If this brilliant doccie is not about resilience in the face of great odds, then the message is lost upon us
Until two Saturdays ago my idea of heaven was devouring a plate of seafood at Bertha’s in Simon’s Town while looking out over the bright waters of the Atlantic.
I should not have watched My Octopus Teacher, easily one of the best documentaries ever made. A burnt-out 50-something-year-old white dude has the time to do daily dives every day for much of the calendar year, down into a kelp forest off the shores of the Cape Town. Diving without a wetsuit into those icy cold waters, where sometimes heavy swells could knock you against a rock and end any thoughts of adventure, makes no sense. Until you understand what drives Craig Foster – an unlikely friendship with a cephalopod.
An octopus is a shy creature, spending much of its time shielded under a rock (“the den”) for fear of predators. But Craig, on a stroll down under, meets the mollusk and a bond forms between Homo sapiens and Octopus vulgaris. Slowly, an octopus arm unfurls and the sensitive little sucker cups cling to the diver’s fingers, then hand. There is recognition, even an emotional bond. No scientist or photographer had captured a moment like this. You watch, transfixed, and finally accept that paying that Netflix subscription might have been worth it after all.
Later in the filming, after watching his unnamed partner out there enjoying playful moments in the open with a shoal of small fish (not eating them this time), the octopus cradles in the bosom of the diver’s naked body as they share a moment. On dry land this would be called an affair.
The brilliance of this doccie is how it brings the drama of life in the oceans into the everyday lives of sea creatures, and you cannot help wonder about the parallels with human life in the Covid world. We humans too must “shelter in place”, our homes being our own little rock dens in case the coronavirus catches us and causes illness, even death. Soon one million people worldwide would have died because of Covid-19, according to officially recorded statistics; in fact, we probably have already surpassed that point in the real body count of this once-in-a-century pandemic.
Back under the water our octopus seems to be constantly fighting for its own survival. The doccie opens with a strange scene of what seems to be a jumble of shells around something. Even the fish swim around and pick at this strange monstrosity. Later we see how the octopus can quickly assemble with its many arms an array of shells and junk within which it hides from predators. Especially the damn pyjama shark with the long dark stripes running along the length of its body in search of its favourite meal, octopi.
Watching, your heart is your mouth as a pyjama shark smells its way around its prey. The diver keeps reminding us that while he enjoys an intimate bond with this underwater friend, he holds back from interfering with the laws of nature. Suddenly, a shark finds and latches onto one of the arms of our octopus, doing a “death roll” as it bites off the arm sticking out from under the concealed rock. Is this the end?
After a period of recuperation, the arm grows back and becomes fully functional as the octopus grabs or covers unsuspecting fish prey with its body. If this is not a story about resilience in the face of great odds, then the message is lost upon humans suffering in the kelp forests of our own corona lives.
Day after day, the diver braves the cold waters, not driven so much by scientific curiosity as by his bond with an underwater friend. Large, menacing sharks occasionally show up in the film; but Craig does his daily dives, telling one media outlet that driving to the ocean is the more dangerous activity.
Surely this man-octopus romance must conclude at some point, and Craig reminds the viewer once or twice that the creature has a short lifespan, about a year. This helps you prepare for the end. On one dive he notices a huge octopus alongside his friend. They appear comfortable with each other and Craig realises that mating is under way. His mate lays tens of thousands of eggs and the sheer effort of this enormous biological feat takes its toll on the cephalopod’s body. Weary, the poor octopus lays down in the open, eyes barely open, and the damn pyjama shark makes its rounds to carry off the lingering remains of an intimate friend.
There are so many life lessons to be drawn from My Octopus Teacher, including trust, friendship and resilience. In the meantime, I have made two firm decisions. I will never again wear my black and white pyjamas. And no more calamari for me – it may be squid, not octopus, but that’s still too close to home.