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Oscar-winning 'My Octopus Teacher' highlights connectivity and environmental issues

South African Oscar-winning "My Octopus Teacher" draws attention to human connectivity with nature and environmental issues.

Directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed pose with the award for Best Documentary Feature for "My Octopus Teacher" in the press room at the Oscars, at Union Station in Los Angeles, California, April 25, 2021.


Chris Pizzello/AP

When documentary filmmaker Craig Foster was diving off the South African coast a few years ago, he came across a peculiar octopus. 

“There’s something special about her. And then I had this crazy idea. What happens if I just went every day?” said Foster in “My Octopus Teacher,” a documentary that follows his relationship with the octopus for more than 300 days.

It recently won an Oscar for Best Documentary and is currently streaming on Netflix.

Related: Oscar-nominated 'Wolfwalkers' blends environmental, spiritual history of Ireland

“We had no intention at that point, not even a vague idea, that we would be making a film. It was only after, much after, when we looked through lots of the footage,” said Swati Thiyagarajan, an environmental journalist and one of the film’s producers. 

Thiyagarajan had encountered octopuses before, when diving with Foster, to whom she’s also married. 

She recalls how once an octopus approached her, only to take off with her shiny wedding ring. 

But the octopus of “My Octopus Teacher” stood out from the rest. 

"[It] is an extraordinary thing for a wild animal to ... allow for those interactions to happen.”

Swati Thiyagarajan, environmental journalist

“Months passed, and then she was just there, which is an extraordinary thing for a wild animal to have and allow for those interactions to happen,” said Thiyagarajan, who saw the octopus a few times from afar.

It’s Foster who gets up close, diving into the chilly aquamarine waters off False Bay without an oxygen tank or a wetsuit, to film the octopus — who eventually permits him access to her underwater world. The bay lies between the Cape Peninsula and the Hottentots Holland Mountains in southwest South Africa. 

We see the octopus hunt prey, play with fish, and outmaneuver sharks. At times, the octopus gives Foster what seems to be a tentacled hug, clinging thousands of suction cups to Foster's body.

Related: Is there such a thing as octopus sign language?

“Most of the time she’s jetting or crawling or swimming. But occasionally, two legs come out. She walks, and off she goes,” says Foster in the film. 

The octopus’s home is the magnificent kelp forest off the southern African coast.

“Everything that you see in a forest on land. Now just imagine that that forest fills with water. And that entire forest is underwater. That’s exactly what it is,” explained Thiyagarajan.

A few years ago, she and her colleagues at the Sea Change Project, which developed the documentary, gave the kelp forest a name: The Great African Sea Forest. 

They want to bring attention to it and help preserve it. 

“Our immediate concerns with this ecosystem are things like poaching."

Swati Thiyagarajan, environmental journalist

“Our immediate concerns with this ecosystem are things like poaching. Because a lot of our species, like abalone, are decimated,” said Thiyagarajan.

She adds that the kelp forest is also vulnerable to warming waters from climate change.

The conservationist underpinnings of the film, however, are intentionally subtle.

Instead, at the forefront, is a message of connectivity.

“Understanding that nature is an intrinsic nature of belonging. That message to inspire people to find their own connection to nature,” said Thiyagarajan.

Indeed, that’s the parting lesson from the nameless octopus star of “My Octopus Teacher.”

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