On the Trail: The cephalopod teacher that steals the show

In contrast to Netflix’s Tiger King serial chronically murder, mayhem and the abhorrent exploitation of animals that captured a quarantine’s nations weird attention, the streaming network is now offering a wonderful contrast, a film capturing the sentient life of a cephalopod.

The film chronicles the life of a common octopus in a kelp forest in the frigid waters of False Bay off the western cape of South Africa. But it’s more than just the life of the octopus.

“My Octopus Teacher” explores a year-long relationship between filmmaker and diver Craig Foster and a singular octopus he finds after spotting an unusual shell structure.

The shell structure is a makeshift hiding spot for the octopus. After seeing her shoot out from under the shell Foster goes searching.

Foster had retreated to the land of his childhood after feeling burned out from his work. He had vowed to dive every day for a year into the bay, using only light scuba gear to feel more natural in the water.

After several days of searching, he finds the octopus and a relationship begins. In one poignant moment at the start of their encounters, the octopus reaches one of her tentacles out to him and he touches it with his finger.

“There’s something to learn here,” he says.

It becomes clear Foster isn’t the teacher, the octopus is.

This lovely documentary doesn’t hammer you with facts about octopuses, such as that there are 300 species of them, have no bones and can squeeze into tiny spaces, can morph into different colors and textures, have three hearts and blue blood, and are highly intelligent with most of their neurons located in their arms. Instead, you watch these facts unfold as Foster checks in with his friend. His son sometimes accompanies him.

Jacques Cousteau was one of the first filmmakers to spend time with cephalopods and much has been written about them. In an article in The Atlantic, Olivia Judson delved into research on octopuses, noting that “an encounter with an octopus can sometimes leave you with the strong feeling that you’ve encountered another mind.”

In “Other Minds: The Octopus, the sea and the Deep origins of Consciousness” Peter Godfrey Smith wrote: “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”

But in Foster’s film, the female octopus isn’t an “other.” It’s a life with ups and downs and adventure and pain. In one riveting scene, the octopus faces its arch predator, a pajama shark.

Octopuses are short-lived. This one lives about a year and Foster’s film doesn’t back away from the tough moments.

“I fell in love with her,’’ he tells viewers. “but also with the amazing wildness she represented.”

The Octopus Teacher is streaming on Netflix. More about Foster and his nonprofit, Sea Change Project, which seeks to protect the kelp forests, can be found here.

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions at Hearst and The Hartford Courant and contributing writer for The New York Times.