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Filmmaker Finds An Unlikely Underwater Friend In 'My Octopus Teacher'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. One of the most heartwarming films of 2020 was about the relationship between our next guest, filmmaker Craig Foster, and an octopus he befriended while diving off the Western Cape of South Africa. Foster had burned out from years of working on arduous nature films and decided he needed a reset. He vowed that he would dive without a wet suit or oxygen tank every day for a year into the chilly waters of his youth and explore the kelp forest, an ecosystem teeming with life. It was there that he gained the trust of an octopus who allowed him into its world, where Foster discovered things about its life and his own.

Foster's film, called "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar and is available on Netflix. Foster has received over 60 international awards for his work in documentary films. FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger spoke to him last fall. Craig Foster was at his home in Cape Town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM BRIGER: Craig Foster, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CRAIG FOSTER: Thank you, Sam. Glad to be here.

BRIGER: So this journey began when you started diving in the waters of the Western Cape near where you grew up every day for a year. What compelled you to do that?

FOSTER: Well, I just - you know, I had been through a very, very busy time. I felt tired, you know, lacking drive. I was burnt out. And my earliest memories, my deepest and most powerful memories, were of this incredible coast and diving in what I call my magical childhood forest, the great African sea forest, this underwater forest. So there's a natural place for me to go, just to keep going into that water every day. And as I did that day after day, I slowly started to get my energy back and realized that there was this, you know, whole new way of looking at this underwater forest. And I started to come alive again.

BRIGER: And these are cold waters. It sounds like they can get to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. But you decided to dive without a wet suit and without an oxygen tank. Why is that?

FOSTER: You know, it's interesting. A lot of people initially said, you know, what - why are you diving without a wet suit? It's crazy. And over the years, I've taken many people into the water to show them what it's like to skin dive, to free dive, without - with the minimal equipment. And, Sam, what it does is, first of all, the cold actually changes the chemical nature in your brain, and it pushes a whole lot of feel-good chemicals into the brain. So you feel alive. You feel awake. You feel stimulated.

But because you can feel that water on your skin, you can feel the slight temperature differences, you feel much closer to nature. You feel more amphibious in a way. I like to ponder on the amphibious nature of our humanness, and diving in this way with this method brings out that amphibious nature. So there are actually quite a lot of advantages to it. And what it does in the long run is that this cold stress actually puts a certain stress on the immune system that makes it quite a lot stronger. So you get much healthier during that process.

BRIGER: Let's talk about the octopus. So one day, you're diving in the kelp forest, and you see this strange collection. It looks like a ball of shells and rocks. And you realize there's an octopus in there because the octopus swims away at some point. And it's been holding all the shells and rocks against its body, covering itself. And it sounds like this behavior had not been documented before. What have you learned about this behavior?

FOSTER: Yes, you're absolutely right. I call this behavior armoring. And what I've learned is that octopus, you know, they've got all sorts of ways of dealing with predators. And of course, you'd have known about the inking, you know, you know about the whole camouflage and everything. But one of the last resorts that they do if they're in the right kind of environment, they will suddenly, very, very quickly pick up up to 70 shells and stones and sometimes even bits of algae and cover their whole body with them by turning their arms over their head. Because the head is the very sensitive part of an octopus' anatomy. And if a predator bites or interferes with the head, there's often a really big problem.

BRIGER: Yeah, it's amazing. And I think, you know, during your time in the kelp forest, you're just fascinated by this creature. And so you start visiting it every day. And you actually gain its trust, and it becomes comfortable following you around, and it lets you follow it around. And it would even attach to you and swim with you. Had you ever had an interaction like this with a wild creature before?

FOSTER: Not anywhere at this level. Because I've been diving for years - I've been diving since I was three years old. I'm now 52. So I have had fascinating encounters with various animals, animals that have decided to come and make contact with me. But it's mostly fleeting, you know? It happens just on one occasion, on one day. And it's kind of mysterious, and it's interesting, but this was different in that, you know, this was over a long period of time that this trust and this physical contact built up.

Sometimes when she'd eaten or when she was - you know, they're quite moody. Sometimes she didn't want to have contact. So it wasn't like it is happening absolutely every day, but certainly, I had many extraordinary experiences with her. And many, many times I couldn't, you know, film them as well. So, you know, the film is just a slice, really, of the experience of being with this incredible creature and learning from her.

BIANCULLI: Craig Foster speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last fall. Foster's documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "SUPERA")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger's interview from last fall with filmmaker Craig Foster. His documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," is up for an Oscar later this month at this year's Academy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BRIGER: So you're fascinated by this octopus, and you decide that you're going to go visit it every day and observe it. And at one point, the octopus actually reaches out and touches you. What did that moment feel like?

FOSTER: You know, that's obviously a special moment when that animal decides to make that first contact. And, you know, other octopus have done that to me as well, but it was somehow different with her. It's impossible to explain. But you must realize, Sam, she's still holding on with all her arms. It's just that one arm that she's sending out.

The real moment when I was like just completely blown away was when she came out the den right in front of me. And then there's no arms holding back. That's when I realized this animal trusts me. She no longer sees me as a threat, and her fear changes to curiosity. That's the big moment.

BRIGER: So when the octopus touches you, what do the suckers feel like?

FOSTER: You'd be surprised how incredibly powerful the suction is. And they are covered in a kind of octopus slime that makes it even adhere more strongly, but they are very, very strong. I mean, if you try and pull directly back when that animal is holding you, it's really very, very difficult. And you'd have to force it. So you have to gently twist and turn if you need to go up to have a breath of air because you don't want to pull too hard on that animal. So you have to kind of curl and twist to break that incredibly powerful suction.

BRIGER: What - is it easy or is it a trap to start anthropomorphizing a creature like this when you're trying to understand its behavior?

FOSTER: I think you have to be very careful of that because she's - you know, she's 200 million years away from us on the evolutionary scale. So in some ways, she has this very ancient, ancient mind. But her neural makeup is, in some ways, similar to ours. So there is a possibility that she could feel certain emotions. But how those are interpreted - and also, what's very interesting, Sam, is that two-thirds of her cognition is outside of her brain, in her arms. And so her arms have this external cognition.

And, you know, it's a hard fast to get our thoughts around how that all works. So you're dealing with, you know, a very different creature in many ways. But perhaps the underlying nature of cognition is not that dissimilar. That's also in the back of one's mind. So you - it's mysterious. And that's what makes it so interesting. And that's why I will study these animals for the rest of my life. And I only know a tiny bit of how they work.

BRIGER: So, you know, the common octopus has a pretty short life span of about a year. And you had - you know, you figured out - you'd been spending a lot of time with this octopus. And clearly, her life span was coming to an end. Did you start to feel ambivalent about your trips to the ocean during those last days? Like, were you looking forward to seeing her but also dreading the end?

FOSTER: Yeah. It was obviously difficult. You know, you get close to an animal like this. And I was certainly dreading that. But at the same time, I mean, I guess, in some ways, it's better than a human death because it's quite merciful. It's quite short. And also what happens when she gets to the end of her life, she becomes senescent, senile. So her brain starts to not work so well. So she's not fully aware of what's going on. And that brought some comfort.

BRIGER: In the movie, you say that you still visit her den after her death. And you would sort of float above it and feel her presence. Do you still do that? Do you visit her den?

FOSTER: Funny enough, Sam, I went to her - you know, she had a few dens. But her main den where she spent the most of the time, I went to visit that den today, this morning. Yeah, it's just a great feeling, you know, to go there. And, you know, I just dive down and kind of silently thank her for this incredible teaching that she's given me. What happens is once she moves out of the den, it soon fills up completely with sand. So it's basically just a rock edge.

But what's so interesting is that other octopuses seem to be able to somehow sense exactly where she's denned. And they have made a den in exactly that same place. And I've seen this at other den sites as well. So there's something - maybe they can smell - there's some incredible ability to smell because then they have to, of course, excavate and dig the whole den out. There's no sign of it having been there. So I'm sure in a few weeks or a month, I will find another octopus in that same - exactly that same place. And it's not 20 or 30 centimeters away. It's in the same place.

BRIGER: Craig Foster, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR.

FOSTER: It's been a great pleasure, Sam, speaking to you. And I really appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Craig Foster speaking with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger last fall. Foster's documentary, "My Octopus Teacher," has been nominated for an Oscar. On Monday's show, writer, director and actor Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the feminist revenge film "Promising Young Woman." It's nominated for five Academy Awards this year, including best picture, best direction and best original screenplay. Fennell also played Patsy in the PBS series "Call The Midwife" and portrayed Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix series "The Crown." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "ACROSS THE CRYSTAL SEA")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "ACROSS THE CRYSTAL SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.