It takes place off the South African coast, in a seascape of kelp, floating and swaying with the rhythm of the ocean. It is silent and peaceful, a world most of us will never experience firsthand.
Craig Foster is burned out, exhausted, and seeking to discover some meaning in his life. And lessons he can pass on to his son.
He commits to going into the ocean every day for an entire year. He moves amongst the inhabitants, an interloper, seeking a quiet escape from the world above. He is “free diving” without a wet suit, with only a snorkel in water as cold as 46 degrees Fahrenheit, surfacing only to catch his breath.
As he scans the ocean floor beneath him, he spots a strange creature being prodded by fish. He does not recognize it and moves on.
He then spots an octopus moving about stealthily, starting, stopping, and hiding. He is instantly intrigued.
And he has met his octopus teacher.
Every day he searches and observes “her” behavior. This kelp first is indeed an Octopus’ Garden.
What is an octopus?
An octopus falls into the category of a cephalopod or a mollusk.
They live exclusively in the water, have bilateral bodies (symmetrical halves), prominent heads, and arms, not tentacles. There is a fine distinction as tentacles only have suction cups near each limb's end, where arms have them the entire length.
In fact, the octopus has eight arms, thus the word ‘octo,’ two rows of suction cups that can smell, taste, and think. Also, they have nine brains and three hearts.
And they are not fish.
Cephalopods are ancient, 500M years old. They are diverse in color and size and can even change their texture to outwit a predator.
As you will see in the film, they grow fast and die young, living from one to three years.
Lessons from an Octopus
This creature, this mere mollusk, has the ability to outwit a shark. She is a genius.
At times, they use two of their legs and walk along the ocean floor.
She leaves her den searching for food at great peril, survives an attack, convalesces, and regains strength as a new arm begins to sprout.
She is brave and fights to live.
She is curious, moving away from Foster at first. Trust grows and she senses he is not a threat.
As Foster reaches toward her, she, in return, stretches her arm, laying the end of it against his hand, in recognition and in trust. It is a moment of unspoken communication.
In the end, she gives her body and her life for the survival of her young.
But Foster discovers something else.
That strange, innate creature he spotted as he started his one-year diving quest was indeed an octopus in disguise.
And there are many moments in between.
* * *
The oceans hold some of the most fascinating life forms on the planet. This film is an example of the intelligence it holds and that creatures have the ability to love, protect, and connect in ways we can only imagine.
After seeing this film, I will not be eating any fried calamari.
Streaming on Netflix, My Octopus Teacher is worth every minute of your time.
Grab a bowl of popcorn and be prepared to shed tears of joy.