Filmmaker Craig Foster off the coast of South Africa
The starring octopus hunts a lobster.
The octopus hides by wrapping herself in kelp leaves.
A baby octopus nestles on Foster’s wrist.
Foster gets close to his eight-limbed companion.
Foster’s undersea friend reaches for his face.
About halfway through My Octopus Teacher — long after viewers have fallen head-over-heels for the eight-limbed star of this Netflix nature documentary — danger rears up.
Sharks have picked up her scent. She has no time to return to her den, so she ducks under a rock, backing as far into a crevice as she can. More sharks appear. They swarm the opening, gliding back and forth, pausing to jam their noses into it.
"I struggled immensely at that moment," says director of photography Roger Horrocks, who shot that intense underwater scene hoping the octopus would survive. Because he was "emotionally attached to her," he wanted nothing more than to scare the sharks off. But as an experienced wildlife cinematographer dedicated to filming creatures in their natural habitats, he knew not to interfere.
My Octopus Teacher is, first and foremost, a story about the unusual bond that forms between filmmaker Craig Foster and a wild octopus he encountered while exploring an underwater kelp forest off the coast of South Africa.
But watching this moving film feels a lot like falling down a rabbit role and entering an alternate universe — an undersea wonderland that spills its secrets thanks to deft and steadfast camerawork by Horrocks, Foster and Pippa Ehrlich, a filmmaker and nature journalist who served as a director along with James Reed.
Foster started things off when he began daily explorations of the kelp patch, which is close to his beachfront home near Cape Town. From below, it truly looks like a watery forest.
Long, tubular kelp plants reach waveringly from the sea bottom to the surface. They calm the waves' turbulence and provide a rich habitat for wondrous sea creatures, including one remarkably curious and adventurous common octopus who caught Foster's attention.
He endeavored to visit her every day, recording his outings with a small underwater camera. Eventually he invited Horrocks, a colleague from other documentary projects, to join him. The film covers a year of the octopus' existence — almost the entirety of her life.
"It helps to feel absolutely at home in the water," says Horrocks, who grew up along the same coastline and was used to swimming in its frigid temperatures. A specialist in underwater cinematography, he's shot all over the world on such projects as Our Planet (Netflix) and Blue Planet 2 (BBC). He recently won the Critics Choice Documentary Award for Best Cinematography for his work on My Octopus Teacher.
"The big difference with underwater shooting is that you have to be very close to the animals," he says, estimating that he spent 80 days filming alongside Foster in that patch of ocean, which is only about nine feet deep.
"And you can't use a very long lens. So you have to develop a relationship with the animals." Horrocks wore scuba gear and used a bubble-free oxygen source that let him remain underwater for extended periods. He also wore extra-long fins to keep up with the swiftly darting creatures.
Ehrlich and Foster, on the other hand, chose to freedive — using no tanks and holding their breath while underwater.
Ehrlich, who primarily shot supplemental B-roll footage in the latter stages of production, trained herself to remain underwater for two minutes at a time. She also learned to move gently and unobtrusively so as not to scare off any marine life. "The biggest challenge of filming sea creatures," she says, "is that they never stick around in the same place for very long."
To present himself to the octopus in the most natural state possible, Foster wears only a swimsuit. It pays off. After a period of keeping her distance, she finally makes physical contact.
In one especially tender scene that Horrocks shot, she runs her tentacles around Foster's fingers and over his chest, attaching her suckers to him and exploring his bare skin. Likewise, she allows Foster to cup her in his hand and stroke her tentacles. That's when we realize how small she actually is.
"She definitely became comfortable with Craig and, by extension, comfortable with me," says Horrocks, who believes the octopus could differentiate between them. He recalls one particular outing when "she came out and wrapped herself around the tripod and explored the tripod and camera, and then moved on to Craig. It was a very profound experience."
As the octopus becomes more familiar with the two men, she allows them greater access. They visit her den, observe her hunting for prey and — in some of the most remarkable scenes — record the instantaneous transformations that she uses to elude predators, including changing colors and shapes.
For example, in one sudden encounter with a shark, she jets into a thick kelp grove and wraps herself in leaves. She is so thoroughly camouflaged that only her eyes peek out, and the shark can't find her. It can still smell her, though.
As the shark thrashes about, she makes another dash, spritzing clouds of ink to hide her trail. She rises to the surface, climbs onto a rock, slithers across and ducks back in. But the shark is still after her. She races to the sea bottom where, with lightning speed, her suckers latch on to a hundred or so shells.
She instantly rolls into a ball and cocoons her head with the bedecked tentacles. Looking like a miniature Christmas tree covered in decorations, she is now sheathed in shells, which serve as both camouflage and body armor against her predator's sharp teeth.
"It feels like a magical kingdom — it does awe you," says Ehrlich, who shot some mesmerizing underwater tableaux, including what appears to be a curtain of diaphanous pink jellyfish that float past one day. Translucent and otherworldly, they appear to be drifting along like tiny parachutes. Recalling that sight, she says, "You literally feel like you're being visited by an alien."
Since its fall debut, My Octopus Teacher has become a viral hit — attributable, in part, to people spending long days at home during the pandemic, starved for visual refreshment. But more important, many viewers have found inspiration in seeing a human being connect so deeply with a wild sea creature. Actor Justin Theroux commented on Instagram, "Had me in tears. Bye calamari."
"It's very good for our minds, body and spirit," Ehrlich says. She and Foster are members of the Sea Change Project, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to protecting kelp forests. It partnered on the film in hopes of galvanizing people to deepen their relationship with nature.
Ehrlich believes we have a deep and ancient connection to sea life that stems from when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. This project is meant to revive some of that primordial wisdom. Certainly Foster's extraordinary determination, empathy, patience and sensitivity toward the octopus and her ecosystem offer an instructive path.
"It's still in our memory," Ehrlich says. As for the octopus, "She was a dream subject."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2021