When you have lived with a dog as we have with a collie from his puppyhood to going on 9 years, knowing now you will be with him through his entire life and that it will only be a part of yours, a person could feel not just mortality and impending loss but a powerful sense of the tides of nature and time.
We take a canine year as about seven of ours. Missing a day of something for that collie, like playing tennis, is like our losing a week of anything terribly important. An octopus, a form of life as high as a feeling, thinking and learning dog, typically lives just one year. Each day of its life is like two months of ours. For such smart and solitary creatures that never know their parents, a lot happens fast – but what, precisely?
Fifteen years ago, the Anchorage (Alaska) Press published “Eight arms to hold you,” detailing how a giant Pacific octopus at the Alaska SeaLife Center, with the world watching and rooting through press reports, mated and held on to bring her eggs to life in captivity. “In a world filled with suicide bombings and schoolyard shootings, an octopus at last had touched a human chord,” the Press observed.
Much more has been humanly learned about octopuses since then, primarily from studying them in aquariums. But they are wild creatures and we still know next to nothing about who they are when they’re at home because they are so hard to visit.
Craig Foster, a documentary filmmaker from South Africa, was having a mid-life crisis in 2010 when he took up free-diving, driving from his home in Cape Town to a spot along the South Atlantic coast where he would plunge beneath the roaring surf in water about 50 degrees, wearing just shorts, long fins, a weight belt and a mask and snorkel, and explore the kelp forest. Soon, he found himself craving the cold. And then one day he encountered an octopus, which is the subject of the new Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher.”
Making the distinct acquaintance of an octopus – simply to see the same exotic animal twice and have it seem to recognize him – spurred Foster. Realizing it likely would only live several seasons before it would mate and die, he determined to go to its grotto and visit every day.
The octopus begins to trust and tolerate him. Likely he is the first human it has known or touched. He sees it stalked by pyjama sharks; when a shark bites off one of its arms and it retreats, drained of color, to its den, he brings it a mussel to eat and then watches as it grows a new, perfect limb.
When it is stalked again by a shark, it escapes, astonishingly, by riding on the shark’s back. It innovates and learns in a hurry. Foster has to surface for air in the middle of that – and then is surprised to see the octopus hop out beside him on a rock.
More remarkable, he sees it playing with fish – or it could be dancing with fish.
But the most sublime thing might be Foster just looking in the octopus’ strange, horizontal, rectangular eye, and seeing it looking back at us; and feeling seen by an animal that acts, remembers and dreams.
We say “it,” but Foster calls this common octopus “her.” We were partway through the film and on the verge of Googling “how to sex an octopus” when it occurred to us how Foster knew – and how, as our days tick by, this story must end in the tides of time and rejuvenation.