My Octopus Teacher

by Michael Young | April 9, 2021
5 min read
Source: Netflix

Editor’s Note: This is the second of five reviews of this year’s Academy Award nominees for best feature-length documentary, all of which are available for streaming. The reviews, specially commissioned by the Sun from former New Mexico-based movie reviewer Michael Young, will all be published before the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on April 25.

“The Really Long View” is the name I give to an approach in documentaries of the last couple of years that suggest a level of commitment and work that is truly elevating the art, and science, of feature-length documentary movies. In this year’s “Crip Camp,” for example, the filmmakers use what appears to be 1960s home movie footage of a summer camp for disabled teenagers that one of the documentarians had attended. Using that rare footage as the takeoff point, they then show many of those same campers as they become leaders of the disability rights movement over the next two decades. The movie is a classic study in applying patience, discipline and long-range perspective to filmmaking.

In “My Octopus Teacher,” there is a similar commitment to patience, discipline and personal involvement, but the timeframe is shrunk to just short of a full year.  And yet, to one of the two lead characters in this film—an octopus—that year represents most of her entire life. And so, this film takes about as long a view as is possible in examining her story.

If that sounds a bit strange—talking about examining the life of a single octopus as if it were a central character in a feature film—well, that is exactly what separates this movie from nearly all the other wildlife documentaries that have come before it. A film about a sea creature might conjure up an image of a National Geographic special on TV, with incredible colors and spectacular images of another organism. But, in the hands of co-directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, this film is really so much more personal than that. It is, in a very real sense, a biography of a particular octopus and the story of her mind-boggling relationship with a human being.

The human being is Craig Foster. A man who is no stranger to the exotic life of Africa, having spent many months documenting the lives of bushmen of the Kalahari. I sense that he was kind of lost and without purpose afterward. Maybe suffering from a mid-life crisis, he was also having family troubles and decided he needed some substantial downtime.

Living, literally, on the edge of Cape of Storms in South Africa, he decided to spend time diving, without tanks, in the cold waters right in his backyard.  After many weeks of getting used to the cold and learning to hold his breath for ever-longer periods, he encounters an octopus. Mind you, there is nothing particularly unique about this octopus, but he finds it and then, repeatedly, encounters it in his dives.

With an intense feeling of curiosity, he senses that there might be something to learn from this animal and, in a mix of commitment and, maybe, desperation, he decides that he will visit this animal every single day just to see what its life is like.

Initially with nothing better to do, he actually succeeds in his “long view” effort, for almost a year—diving into the kelp forest every day, finding his newfound friend, and just being with her for as long as he can hold his breath. What he learns, about the animal, and about himself, is nothing short of amazing. (In the course of his observations, many of them caught on film, he contributes examples of many new behaviors to scientific knowledge of a “common” octopus).

What distinguishes this documentary from the usual National Geographic special is that the storyteller is not a scientist or conservationist. We aren’t watching the animals behave from a distance while the narrator explains what is happening with scientific detachment.  In the first place this is the story of just a single animal—not a species or even a family. The octopus is a solitary animal struggling to survive, just like any other living creature.

And by spending such a huge amount of time with this single animal, Craig Foster discovers things about her that would escape typical observation. The flashes of intelligence shown when she hops on the back of a shark; the sensitivity when she strokes Foster’s hand with an arm; the pain and sorrow when she loses another one.

The implicit argument behind this kind of documentary is that a wild animal is so much more than the subject of scientific observation. We are conditioned to think that only humans experience true emotions. But Foster’s experience with the octopus suggests that our smug exceptionalism might well be the result of inattention and superficial observation. Taking Foster’s long view with the octopus leads to understanding well beyond the parameters of the science project it documents and gives this shy but canny creature, often dismissed as a creepy crawly, a more rightful place in the hierarchy of intelligent and sentient beings.

And, towards the end, in a series of events that you have to really see to believe, the film brings its lessons back to the human side. Foster says: “What she taught me is to feel . . . that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.” Foster made a commitment to the octopus and was rewarded with acceptance as a new member of the kelp forest community. He then used that understanding to reconnect with his son.

A question to ask yourself after watching this movie is ‘Why wasn’t the octopus given a name?’  There’s an answer to that, I think, and it comes from understanding the message of the movie.

“My Octopus Teacher” is a terrific film using the technique of personal interaction to explore nature with an intimacy that I’ve never seen before. I might not come away knowing everything there is to know about octopi. But I know how one octopus felt about a human being named Craig Foster. She doesn’t need to have a name to teach us that.

Documentaries are always a bit better than the average Oscar-nominated film.  This is the second in the Sun’s series of reviews of the nominees for best feature-length documentary, and it certainly raises the bar even higher for the remaining three contenders. 4.5 stars

“My Octopus Teacher” is available on Netflix Streaming.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

1 thought on “My Octopus Teacher”

  1. Susan Christie

    There was an interview with Craig Foster on April 9 on NPR.

    I wish to tell you a story. My son and daughter-in-law live in San José, Calif. My oldest grandson, living at the time of this particular visit, had a roommate who worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We love the aquarium and so does my son’s family.

    My son and his wife were married at their home. Their boutonnières, made by us all after we went shopping for flowers, resembled octopus. The plates, the decorations all were octopus-themed.

    I bet you thought I lost the thread!

    Of course, at a later time referred to in my first paragraph, we had to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was crowded. We parked at the business where my older grandson was now working (how time flies) and called an Uber, which dropped us off at the entrance. Joy! My grandson’s roommate, who worked behind the scenes, knew that an octopus encounter was a much wished-for experience.

    It was dark in the back behind the visitors’ areas. The octopus display, out front for the public, was behind thick glass. In the back area were two open tanks. In the first was the octopus who was on public display. She/he had retreated to the back of the tank, which was at waist level and open. She/he proceeded to change color as we watched. Our guide said she/he was that she was over whatever had caused her to retreat.

    A second tank was covered, and inside was a new-to-the-acquarium octopus, who was adjusting and not feeling well. Cover off. Here came the tentacles, reaching out to us. Tasting us. Sensing us. Discovering us. Lonely? My daughter-in-law reached out, and the octopus responded to her. She blew water at Diane, also at us, but mostly at her. We all had a turn at touching “awesome.” The octopus loved Diane, as was noted by the guide.

    I was most taken about the abovementioned interview’s reference to the octopus’s ancient brain.

    I suggest everyone take a few minutes and think deeply about our world.

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