My Octopus Teacher (2020) Movie Script

[waves crashing]
[seagull squawking]
[female chanting playing]
[man] A lot of people say
that an octopus is like an alien.
But the strange thing is,
as you get closer to them,
you realize that we're very similar
in a lot of ways.
You're stepping
into this completely different world.
Such an incredible feeling.
And you feel you're on the brink
of something extraordinary.
[upbeat orchestral music playing]
But you realize
that there's a line that can't be crossed.
[tense music playing]
It's quite a long time ago now,
that day when it all started.
[thunder rumbling]
[seagulls squawking]
This place on the tip of Africa
is known as the Cape of Storms.
My childhood memories
are completely dominated
by the rocky shore, the intertidal
and the kelp forest.
We had this little wooden bungalow,
literally below the high-water mark.
So when those huge storms
used to come in,
the ocean used to smash the doors down
and fill up the bottom of the house.
So it was incredibly exciting as a child
to literally live
in the force of that giant Atlantic Ocean.
Most of my childhood
was spent in the rock pools,
diving in the shallow kelp forest.
That's what I most loved to do.
As an adult, I'd been separated from that.
And that was fine at first.
Until I went to the central Kalahari
about 20 years ago.
I was making a film
called The Great Dance with my brother.
And then I met these men
who were probably
some of the best trackers in the world.
To watch these men...
go into the incredible,
subtle signs in nature,
things that my eye couldn't even see,
and then follow them, sometimes for hours,
and find hidden animals in the landscape
was just extraordinary to witness.
I mean, they just were
inside of the natural world.
And I could feel I was outside.
And I had this deep longing
to be inside that world.
I went through two years of absolute hell.
[indistinct chattering]
I had been working hard for a long time,
I'd just worn myself out.
I hadn't slept properly for months.
My family was suffering.
And I was getting sick
from all the pressure.
My mind couldn't deal with all that stuff.
And I didn't wanna see a camera
or an edit suite ever again.
I couldn't even face that.
Your great purpose in life is now...
just in pieces.
And you've got this young child
that's growing up.
I just couldn't, in that state,
be a good father to my son.
I had to have a radical change.
And I took inspiration from my childhood,
and I took inspiration
from these master trackers
I worked with in the Kalahari.
And the only way I knew
how to do it was to...
be in this ocean.
In the beginning,
it's a hard thing to get in the water.
It's one of the wildest, most scary places
to swim on the planet.
The water drops to as low
as eight, nine degrees Celsius.
The cold takes your breath away.
And you just have to relax.
And then you'll get
this beautiful window of time
for 10, 15 minutes.
everything feels okay.
The cold upgrades the brain because
you're getting this flood of chemicals
every time you immerse in that cold water.
Your whole body comes alive.
And then, as your body adapts,
it just becomes easier and easier.
[gentle orchestral music plays]
And eventually...
after about a year...
you start to crave the cold.
[breathes deeply]
What's so amazing about this environment
is you're in a three-dimensional forest,
and you can jump off the top
and go wherever you want.
You're flying, basically.
[piano music playing]
You might as well be on another planet.
You naturally just get
more relaxed in the water.
You get to be able
to hold your breath for longer.
Having a scuba tank in a thick kelp forest
is not optimal for me.
I want to be more like
an amphibious animal.
I knew not to wear a wet suit.
If you really wanna get close to...
an environment like this,
it helps tremendously to have
no barrier to that environment.
And I suddenly realized I've got energy
to take images and film again...
and then picked up my camera again
and started doing the thing I love
and what I know.
[piano music soars]
The animals are extremely
exotic and strange.
It's, like, much more extreme
than our maddest science fiction.
I remember that day when it all started.
I found this very, very special area
that is protected
with a big piece of kelp forest,
'cause the forest itself
actually dampens the swell.
And the whole forest around there
is absolutely murky,
and you can't see a thing.
And in this little 200-meter patch,
you can dive
and observe.
And it's an incredible place.
And I rememberthere was
this strange shape to my left
and just going down...
and seeing this really strange thing.
[delicate piano music playing]
The fish even seemed to be confused.
And then, suddenly...
[gentle orchestral music plays]
At the time, I didn't know
I'd witnessed something extraordinary.
I'd come in at the end of a whole drama.
You think,
"What on earth is this animal doing?"
And I think she was
a little bit afraid of me,
so she lifted this incredibly slippery...
piece of algaethat you can hardly
hold with your hands
and just wrapped it
in this extraordinary cloak around her
and then stared at me
out of the little gap.
And then, boom, you know, she was gone.
It's a hard thing to explain,
but sometimes you just get a feeling,
and you know
there's-- there's something
to this creature that's very unusual.
There's something to learn here.
There's something special about her.
And then I had this crazy idea.
What happens if I just went every day?
What happens if I... I never missed a day?
And, initially, she was clearly
being affected by my presence,
so I thought,
"I'll leave the camera there,
and then that will record her
going about her business."
She sees this shiny new thing
in the forest.
Coming at it with a shield,
just in case it attacked,
and put up the shield.
This is something different.
This is interesting.
Touching it, feeling it, tasting it.
If she was in a playful mood,
you couldn't leave it there for too long.
She'd just pull the thing over.
It took going in every day to really
get to know her environment better.
Initially, it all just seems
like much of the same thing.
But then, after a while, you see
all the different types of the forest.
You get the old-growth forest.
You get the forest with a lot
of different algae growing in the bottom.
You get the misty forest.
As I started to map
the environment around her den,
it was shocking to see small caves
really close to her,
packed with pyjama sharks.
And they really are
her most serious predator.
Their skin is striped.
That's why they're called a pyjama shark.
They're not visual predators.
But they have
an incredible sense of smell.
And they are particularly aggressive.
They can shove their noses
into a small crack.
So they are
deadly little octopus predators.
And I was thinking, "Well, how long before
something happens with these animals?"
After visiting her more and more and more,
there was a definite moment where...
that fear had subsided tremendously.
She'd see big movement,
and she'd be slightly afraid
and then look, "Oh, it's him."
And she'd come out and be very curious.
Very interested, very curious,
but not taking stupid chances.
Keeping all the other arms
attached to the den
and the suckers in place.
And then it just happens.
I put my hand out a tiny bit.
[gentle music plays]
Something happens
when that animal makes contact.
But, at some point,
you're gonna have to breathe.
So you've got tovery gently
prize off those suckers
without disturbing her,
so that you can actually
go up and take a breath.
By far the most powerful
is when it comes out the den
because that's when you know
there's full trust.
There's no holding the arms back
just in case I have to pull back.
It's like, "I totally trust this human,
and I'm coming out of the den,
and I'm gonna go about my business."
I started to see
pretty extraordinary things.
They can look spiky. They can look smooth.
Grow horns on their heads.
They can match color,
texture, pattern, skin.
It's beautiful.
Most of the time,she's jetting
or crawling or swimming.
But occasionally,
two legs come out.
She walks.
And off she goes, striding away,
walking bipedally.
She puts her body into this strange
posture that kind of looks like a rock.
And then two of those arms underneath
slowly moving,
so the rock is just slowly moving away.
And then she changes
into this extraordinary, wobbly,
flowy old lady in a dress.
Perhaps she's trying to mimic
kelp or algae moving in the swell...
and, at the same time,
is slowly moving away.
And this is how she works.
This incredible creativity to deceive.
An octopus is essentially a snail
that's lost its shell in evolution.
A very fragile, liquid, soft animal
that relies on tremendous intelligence.
She's got no mother or father
to teach her anything. She's alone.
'Cause you've got all these different
types of predators, all hunting her.
So, over millions of years,
she's had to...
come up with the most incredible methods
to deceive them.
And she's got to learn fast because
she's only got just over a year to live.
When you're diving alone,
everything about my kit has to be perfect.
And I've gotta be prepared
for all eventualities.
I can't be fiddling around.
It's gotta be instinctive.
But, at that point,
I was making a lot of mistakes.
One day, she was following me.
And that's the most incredible thing,
is to be followed by an octopus.
You know, you're just backing away,
moving backwards,
and this incredible animal
is coming towards you.
And there's not
a lot of fear in it at all.
It's curious, and there's trust,
and it's like this fantastic feeling.
[gentle piano music plays]
And then, bam!
I dropped one of my lenses,
and that thing falling quickly
just startles that animal.
And then it turns and rushes,
and it's got a huge fright.
And you just... youwanna kick yourself,
because it's, you know...
That could have ended in the most
incredible interaction and deep trust,
and you've ruined it.
Now, you know, have you ruined it forever?
Uh, is that animal ever gonna trust you?
Has that... has that experience
freaked it out too much?
And then I approached her too fast.
And that's when she left the den
and got a real fright...
and didn't come back to that den.
And I thought this was over.
She was gone.
I'd had this experience
with these incredible San master trackers.
I just thought, "I wonder if anybody
could ever track anything underwater?"
This animal has spent millions of years
learning to be impossible to find.
I had to learn
what octopus tracks looked like.
And that was very frustrating at first,
so difficult to discern.
What's the difference
between octopus tracks
and heart urchin tracks
and fish tracks...
and worm tracks?
And the predation marks.
The egg casings.
I needed to learn everything.
And then you have to start thinking...
like an octopus.
It's like being a detective.
And you just slowly
get all your clues together.
And then I started to...
make breakthroughs.
"Okay, those are the animals
she's killing."
So I'm looking at kills. I'm looking
at little marks, diggings in the sand,
little changes in the algal patterns
where she's been moving.
And then knowing,
"Okay, this animal is very close now.
It's close.
It's within one or two meters."
And then focusingon that small space.
And then, bang!
She's there.
Finally, after looking for her
for a week, day after day,
there she was.
It's like a...
a human friend, like, waving
and saying, "Hi, I'm excited to see you."
And I could feel it,
like from one minute to the next,
"Okay, I trust you. I trust you, human.
And now you can come
into my octopus world."
And she's moving towards me.
And my natural instinct is...
to gently back away.
And then I just wanted to keep still,
so I held onto a rock.
She just kept coming...
and then covered my whole hand.
I'd been underwater
for quite a long time,
so I just gently pushed for the surface,
thinking she would move off my hand.
But she didn't. She just rode
on my hand right to the surface.
[gentle orchestral music playing]
There I was, just staring into the eyes
of this incredible creature.
It was difficult to imagine at first
that she was getting anything
out of the relationship.
Why would a wild animal, doing its thing,
get anything out of this
strange human creature visiting?
And this is where it gets interesting.
I think quite stimulating
for that huge intelligence.
Somehow, she realizes
this thing is not dangerous,
so you go
and you interact with this human.
And perhaps it does give you
some strange octopus level of joy.
[delicate piano music playing]
When you have that connection
with an animal
and have those experiences,
it's absolutely mind-blowing.
There's no greater feeling on earth.
The boundaries between her and I
seemed to dissolve.
Just the pure magnificence of her.
All I could do at the time
was just think of her.
In the water and on land.
I mean,
it just became a bit of an obsession.
You just want to visit her
every day and see what's going on.
You can't wait to get back in the water.
What goes through her mind?
What's she thinking?
Does she dream? If she dreams,
what does she dream about?
She just ignited my curiosity in a way
that I had not experienced before.
It's very useful to come back home
and try and read
as many scientific papers as possible.
She's a common octopus.
Octopus vulgaris is the scientific name.
Two-thirds of her cognition
is actually outside of her brain,
in her arms.
Her entire being
is thinking, feeling, exploring.
She's got 2,000 suckers, and she's using
all of them independently.
How do you do that?
Imagine having 2,000 fingers.
You can compare her intelligence
to a cat or a dog
or even to one of the lower primates.
A mollusk shouldn't be this intelligent.
So many times I'd go and search
through the scientific papers,
looking for the strange thing I'd seen.
And then you'd just come up
absolutely blank. There's nothing.
You're going into a place
that's under-studied,
and, almost on a weekly basis,
you can find out something new to science.
According to the literature, octopus
are supposed to be a nocturnal species.
Now, was she more active at night?
It was a little bit scary in the dark.
[whales moaning]
These incredible sounds
of the humpback whales
coming through the water.
You're on hyperalert.
[whales hooting]
I couldn't find her.
She wasn't in her den.
I'd kind of given up
and was going back to the shore.
Something just made me
veer slightly to the left.
And there she is...
right in extremely shallow water.
Can't see what she's doing.
These lightning-fast strikes.
Using her arm like this strange weapon.
Just rolling it up
in this fraction of a second.
And I saw her catch three fish like this.
I'd never seen her catching a fish
during the day.
Super dangerous
out in the deeper forest at night,
so this incredibly clever animal
retreats to the shallows,
where it's difficult
for these sharks to get to,
and takes advantage
of all the wonderful food available there.
The first instinct
is to try and scare the sharks away.
But then you realize
that you'd be interfering
with the whole process of the forest.
She was out of the den,
moving around near the edge of the forest.
I noticed...
the shark.
Body was slightly hunched forward
and was following the scent trail.
This is not good.
I think, "Thank God she's safe.
She's right under the rock."
These things are coming
right into that crack.
And the next minute, the shark is
actually clamped down on one of her arms,
doing this terrifying death roll.
And I can clearly see...
her severed arm in its mouth.
[gasps, sighs]
You had that terrible feeling
in your stomach.
And thank God she managed
to get really deep in that crack.
She was moving very badly,
slowly, very weak.
She's bleeding. That smell's in the water.
There's quite a distance to the den.
Are these sharks gonna pitch up again?
I thought about helping her back
physically to the den.
But, luckily, I didn't need to.
I didn't know...
what was gonna happen to her or if this
would make her weak and vulnerable,
and they'd finish her off that night.
And I couldn't help feeling...
had I been responsible for this?
Was she out because I was there?
I felt very vulnerable.
As if somehow what happened to her
had happened to me in some strange way.
And then this almost felt,
psychologically, like I was...
going through a type of dismembering.
You start thinking about your own death
and your own vulnerability,
worried about your family, your child.
I hadn't been a person that was
overly sentimental towards animals before.
I realized I was changing.
She was teaching me
to become sensitized to the other.
Especially wild creatures.
A scary feeling,
going into the water early the next day.
I was very relieved
that she was alive, breathing.
She's so weak that she can't make
those vibrant colors of a healthy octopus,
and she's just dull and white.
And now I'm worried,
"How is she getting food?"
You are crossing a line
when you interfere
in the lives of animals.
But I was just too overcome
with my feelings for her.
I don't think it really helped.
And she's right at the back of the den,
you know, just not moving much.
I was just checking every day
to see if she was okay,
wondering, "Is this the last day?
Am I not gonna see her?"
The big relief came a week or so later,
and I could see
it had sort of healed over pretty fast.
And then the most amazing thing,
to see this...
tiny little miniature,
perfect miniature arm...
starting to grow back.
And it gave me
a strange sort of confidence
that she can get past
this incredible difficulty.
And I felt, in my life,
I was getting past the difficulties I had.
In this strange way,
our lives were mirroring each other.
My relationship with people,
with humans was changing.
My son, at this stage, was very interested
in everything underwater.
[soothing orchestral music plays]
And every day, I'd tell him the stories.
He'd seen her. He'd met her.
I'd taken him so many times.
The arm becomes pretty functional,
even when it's half grown.
And then, slowly, as the arm grew,
she grew her confidence back.
Eventually, about 100 days later,
that arm had fully regrown.
An amazing feeling to think
that this animal is capable of that
and can withstand such an attack
and fully recover.
After a while, she was just carrying on
with her normal activities,
so I then started a whole new development
of seeing even deeper into her world.
It was a nice, calm, clear day.
She comes around a corner
and spots a crab.
The problem when you're a crab,
you're being now hunted
by a liquid animal.
She can pour herself
through a tiny little crack.
And the crab seems to sense her
and goes and hides
underneath a big, poisonous anemone.
And then she waits and hides.
[tense orchestral music plays]
And then the crab thinks,
"Okay, everything's all right,"
and makes the mistake
of leaving that anemone.
[dramatic music playing]
She's quite a messy eater.
Bits going everywhere.
The smell's going out.
And then you just look around,
and you see these brittle stars,
surprisingly fast,
just being drawn to her.
Just a mass of them
sort of overwhelm her,
and she doesn't seem sure of what to do
or how to deal with them.
So I thought,
"Yeah, this is like a real problem now.
She's always gonna have this problem
of brittle stars taking all her food."
Not that long in the future,
she's thought, "Okay,
brittle stars are stealing my food,"
and has this amazing method
of just picking them up with her suckers
and gently just throwing them out the den.
Now she's completely the boss.
She initially adopted the same method
to crab hunting with lobster.
You just suddenly see...
lobsters just shooting out of the reef.
I'm thinking now,
"She's definitely gonna catch this one."
Time and time again, they just evade her.
And then, a couple of weeks later,
watching her coming round the side,
corralling me so that
she can thenget between
the lobster and myself.
Using me as part of her hunting strategy.
And instead of that messy lunge...
throwing her web over the top.
And then there's nowhere for it to go.
This is an animal that is strategizing
and working out very quickly
how best to hunt a very tricky prey.
A lot of her intelligence is built
from the sheer number of prey
that she has to catch.
All sorts of animals.
All the mollusks she is capturing,
they're quite easy to catch,
but they've got
these incredibly hard shells.
Now, how the hell
does she kill and eat them?
At the base of all those arms,
there's a drill
that can drill through hard shell
and then drop venom in there,
like a snake,
and see how that mollusk reacts.
But some of these mollusks will only relax
if that drill is precisely
in the apex of the shell,
on the abductor muscle.
She basically has to do geometry
to work out exactly the precise spot
where she needs to drill that shell
in order to get her food.
This is high-level
invertebrate intelligence.
Her ability to learn and remember details.
And it hit me
how she was teaching me so much.
You just can't wait to get upin
the morning, 'cause there's so much to do
to understand every little tiny mark,
every little behavior,
every species and what they're doing,
how they're interacting.
People ask, "Why are you going
to the same place every day?"
But that's when you see
the subtle differences.
And that's when you get to know the wild.
So when these thousands of threads
going off from the octopus
to all the other animals,
predator and prey,
and then this incredible forest,
um, just nurturing all of this.
And now I know how the helmet shell
is connected to the urchin
and how the octopus
is connected to the helmet shell.
And as I draw all these lines,
all these stories
are just being thrown up.
It's almost like the forest mind.
I really could feel it. That big creature.
It was thousands of times more awake
and intelligent than I am.
This is like a giant underwater brain
operating over millions of years.
And it just keeps everything in balance.
Everything seemed, at this point...
sort of perfect in the forest.
And, of course, you know...
[chuckling]'ve forgotten...
those predators are ever present.
[ominous music playing]
Just have this...
burnt in my memory, this, like, huge shark
just suddenly approaching her.
She kept still and tried to hide.
Then you just saw the shark swimming
on the periphery, picking up her scent.
And I thought,
"Oh, no, this is this whole...
nightmare happening again."
[suspenseful music playing]
[tense, propulsive music plays]
She jets up in the canopy,
and she's wrapping many leaves of kelp
tightly around her body
and then just peering out.
All the smell's on the kelp,
so the shark's now biting
and snapping at the kelp.
She's shot out the back.
[heavy breathing]
She just climbs out over a rock,
leaves the water, and I was like...
I just, you know...
almost can't believe my eyes.
But the problem is, of course,
she's gotta come back.
On the other side,
the shark picks up her scent again.
And this crazy chase is on.
[suspenseful music playing]
And then, I see her,
in a very quick movement,
picking upmaybe close
to 100 shells and stones...
and then folding her arms
over her vulnerable head.
And in that moment,
I realized,
"This is this crazy thing I saw...
so long ago."
Next minute, the shark grabs her.
[suspenseful music playing]
But I had to breathe.
Rush to the surface as fast as you can.
Straight back down again.
And it's like,
"Okay, now, this is too crazy."
Somehow she's managed to maneuver herself
into the least dangerous place,
and that's on the shark's back.
The shark tries to shake her off
and isswimming away.
Takes a few seconds to figure out,
"What the hell's going on here?"
But you can immediately tell
she's now got the upper hand.
[mellow music playing]
As the shark goesnear
some of the thick kelp...
she just pushes off the back...
drops the remaining shells
and jets away.
And the shark,
it's just been completely outwitted.
The shark comes, does one pass,
but she's completely safe.
There's nothing it can do.
And it leaves.
How she can think that quickly
and make those life-and-death decisions,
uh, it's just, yeah,
pretty, pretty incredible.
I was around for a good
80 percent of her life.
Each moment is so precious
because it's so short.
There was this one incredible day.
A big shoal of dream fish.
Fairly shallow water.
Suddenly, she's...
reaching up for the surface like that.
Initially, I thought...
"She's hunting the fish."
Then I was like, "Hold on.
When she hunts, she's strategic,
and she's like...
This behavior
doesn't feel predatory to me."
It took a long time
to actually, like, process it.
But I couldn't help thinking,
"She's playing with the fish."
[gentle piano music plays]
You see play often in social animals.
Here's a highly antisocial animal
playing with fish.
It takes that animal to a different level.
Oh, then she completely
lost interestin the fish,
rushed over...
grabbed hold of me.
And that was the last time
we had physical contact.
[thunder rumbling]
If I think back,
and I remember it was a very rough day,
very turbulent.
Sediment everywhere.
Go down and whoa,
there's another big octopus
right next to her.
It's very, very rare to see
two octopus close together.
"Oh, my God, what's going on?"
And then seeing that both animals
are pretty relaxed
and realizing,
"Okay, and then the mating is beginning."
By this stage, I knew quite well
the stages of an octopus's life.
So while I was very excited
that this mating was beginning,
there was a sort of...
this dread in the bottom of my stomach.
She wasn't coming out of that den.
There was no more feeding,
no more hunting.
A huge part of her body
is actually given to those eggs.
So she drops in weight, and she loses
an enormous amount of strength.
The eggs are laid right in the back,
in the dark.
It's impossible to see them.
I just keep going every day
and just check.
She's oxygenating the eggs
with her siphon, looking after them.
She's just slowly dying
and timing her death exactly
for the hatching of those eggs.
I mean, it struck home so hard for me.
Here's an invertebrate,
essentially a mollusk,
sacrificing her own life
for her young.
All those eggs hatched.
They're tiny,
and they go into the water column.
Hundreds of thousands of them.
And the next thing I saw,
she's washed out the den, barely alive.
[gentle, moving music playing]
And the fish, you know, feeding on her.
A lot of the scavengers
coming to feed on her.
It was just heartbreaking.
A part of me just wanted to hold her
and chase them away.
But I didn't do that.
The next day...
a big shark came...
and just took her away,
you know, into the misty forest.
Often, I go to the place of her main den.
And I just float above it
and feel her there.
[choking up] Of course I miss her.
But, um...
I mean, in some crazy way,
it was a relief.
It was a relief, because the intensity
of going every day and tracking her, um...
and trying to capture, it was...
It was tough in a way.
I mean, I sort of slept, dreamt...
this animal.
I was... You know, I was...
in my mind, thinking like an octopus.
And... and it was all so taxing, in a way.
[delicate, reflective music plays]
But underneath that,
this incredible pride for this animal
that's been through impossible odds
to get to this place.
I mean, an unimaginable life.
[ethereal vocal music playing]
One of the most exciting things
ever in my life, taking my son,
walking along the shore
and just showing him
the... the wonders of nature
and the details
and the intricacies.
I was getting so much from the wild,
and I could actually now give.
I had so much energy to give back.
He's like a little marine biologist now.
He knows so much.
And very powerful swimmer.
And as he gets older,
he seems to want to do it more and more.
To see that develop,
a strong sense of himself...
an incredible confidence,
but the most important thing,
a gentleness.
And I think that's the thing
that thousands of hours in nature
can teach a child.
A few months later, after she'd died,
he actually found
this tiny little octopus.
[gentle piano music playing]
It's very rare
to see an animal that small.
They have up to half a million young.
A handful survive.
So it's a pretty tough road
they have to walk.
But that's their strategy,
live fast and die young.
We kind of imagined
that it might be one of her young.
It was kind of the right size,
the right time.
And it was joyous.
It was like, "Well, there she is."
She'd made me realize
just how precious wild places are.
You go into that water...
and it's extremely liberating.
All your...
worries and problems
and life drama just dissolve.
You slowly start to care
about all the animals,
even the tiniest little animals.
You realize
that every one is very important.
To sense how vulnerable
these wild animals' lives are,
and actually, then how vulnerable
all our lives on this planet are.
My relationship with the sea forest
and its creatures deepens...
week after month after year after year.
You're in touch with this wild place,
and it's speaking to you.
Its language is visible.
[orchestral music grows]
I fell in love with her
but also with that amazing wildness
that she represented
and... and how that changed me.
What she taught me was to feel...
that you're part of this place,
not a visitor.
That's a huge difference.
[ethereal vocal music playing]
[gentle piano playing]