An ode to octopi: diving into South Africa with Pippa Ehrlich – director of My Octopus Teacher

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My Octopus Teacher was my debut as a director and film writer. When I first started working on it, I never imagined it would win the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2021. From the outset I believed in the story, and it moved me in a very powerful way.

This is a film that’s all about the magic and meaning of having a connection to the natural world. Over the course of the documentary, we see naturalist Craig Foster develop a deep friendship with a female octopus he’s tracking in the wilds of South Africa’s Great African Seaforest, which stretches from the shores of Cape Town over 1000kms into Namibia.

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Octopi are very smart, fast-growing creatures

As eminent marine researcher, Dr Jennifer Mather, says the octopus is driven by a mix of fear and curiosity. On the one hand, they are fearful because they are soft, without a shell to protect them from predators. Yet, the reason they have no shell is because they gave it up in evolution in exchange for a very large and curious mind.

So, this incredible capacity for intelligence becomes their weapon, along with their ability to change colour and squeeze through the tiniest holes imaginable. Octopi are very smart, fast-growing creatures. They live hard and fast, with a lifespan of between one and three years, and are, therefore, good at taking risks. 

Human beings, by contrast, live hard, over a longer life. We haven’t got the balance right – we’re trying to sprint a marathon – so we’re burning out. We have a lot to learn from nature, which at one point, not so long ago, was the main focus of our existence.

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Our first freedive was a transformative experience

For me, working with Craig on the film was like finding a mirror. The ocean has always been part of my psyche from an early age, and I had amazing exposure to marine life via my role as an environmental journalist with the Save Our Seas Foundation

Yet, somehow, I still felt stuck on the outside of the environments described by the people I got to interview: some of the world’s most incredible marine biologists. Hearing what a profound relationship they shared with the animals they studied, I started to feel like a voyeur.

Then I was introduced to Craig via a mutual friend. Our first freedive together in the cold-water climes of the Great African Seaforest was a transformative experience. Once you lose your tank, your regulator and then your wetsuit, you have so much freedom. It feels like you’re a bird: travelling through the forest by canopy rather than on the ground.

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We didn’t earn a cent on the film until over two years in

You’re able to engage with the creatures of the kelp forest with a level of detail and complexity that I could never have imagined before.

Freediving with Craig and being able to observe the underwater tracking system he had developed to follow the film’s female octopus, was so powerful. It felt like I could articulate something I’d been sensing for a very long time, but previously didn’t know how to express. 

Soon after, I gave up my lovely job with an ocean-facing office and global travel, to work full-time on My Octopus Teacher. It was scary: we didn’t earn a cent on the film until over two years in, but it also felt to me like we were being driven along by a greater force.

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You’re in direct conversation with the natural world

Every day, for the duration of filmmaking, Craig, myself and the rest of the production team went out into the forest for at least an hour or two. As we were filming on our doorstep in the Cape Town peninsula, we could get the exact shot that we wanted – and we didn’t give up until we got it. The beauty of that time in nature – in the wild and dangerous sea – was fed straight back into the edit. 

That’s why being a naturalist is so compelling. By tracking an octopus so closely, you start to follow the rules and patterns of nature. You’re in direct conversation with the natural world. During that period, I woke up in the morning with more energy than I’d ever had in my life. I couldn’t turn my brain off or think of anything else for three years. It took over my entire life. It was an addiction or, perhaps, a kind of madness.

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I’d never made a film in my life

Securing the Netflix deal for My Octopus Teacher a few years into the project was a huge moment, but the relief was short-lived. It was suddenly terrifying being tasked with delivering the project to one of the world’s largest streaming services – and I’d never made a film in my life. 

We had an amazing team, though. James Reed, my co-director, pulled the film onto a very good track. We had the support of our executive producer, Ellen Windemuth, who’s a very experienced filmmaker. Once we had the Netflix deal in place, consulting editor Jinx Godfrey also really helped shape the film to where it needed to be.

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Engaging with marine life is the only way we’re going to save it. 

The purpose of My Octopus Teacher is really to connect people’s hearts to the beauty and wonder of the kelp forest ecosystem. It’s part of the Sea Change Project, an ocean-protection movement, founded by Craig and his colleague Ross Frylinck in 2012. 

It’s very hard to protect something if no one even knows about it, so our storytelling efforts at the project aim to create awareness and a sense of identity with the Great African Seaforest. 

Nature is very resilient and yet, sadly, human beings are capable of pushing things beyond repair. Octopi face so many problems today, from overfishing and plastic pollution to the erosion of natural habitats. Against this backdrop, engaging with marine life is the only way we’re going to save it. 

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Human beings and octopi could not be more different

It’s good that so many people are now snorkelling and diving in the Great African Seaforest, but it’s also a very sensitive ecosystem. Just visiting that cold-water kelp forest has an impact; it creates wear and tear. So, people in this space need to be mindful and respectful of their environment.

Human beings and octopi could not be more different. As Craig says in the film, that first encounter with an octopus is like meeting “a friendly intelligent alien”. And yet, over the course of the documentary, we see him develop this deep, transformative bond. The fact that he was able to engage like that is proof of how connected we all actually are. 

Pippa Ehrlich is the co-writer, editor and director of My Octopus Teacher – South Africa’s first Netflix Original documentary. You can help protect the Great African Seaforest by making a donation to the Sea Change Project

Flash Pack’s South Africa adventure includes a snorkelling expedition in the kelp forest where My Octopus Teacher was filmed, led by an expert local guide.

Images: ©Pippa Ehrlich, Faine Loubser, ©Tom Foster, ©Ross Frylinck & ©Thomas Neil

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