Octopus scientists love ‘My Octopus Teacher’ just as much as you do

We asked a couple of Australian octopus experts about their thoughts on My Octopus Teacher.
By Angela Heathcote September 25, 2020 Reading Time: 3 Minutes

DUBBED “the love story we all need right now”, Netflix’s new documentary film My Octopus Teacher looks at the unusual relationship between a diver and an octopus. 

Set in a kelp forest off the Western Cape of South Africa, we follow diver Craig Foster encountering an initially cagey, but soon forthcoming cephalopod for almost its entire lifecycle, shedding light on the animal’s incredible intelligence.

Representations of interspecies friendships can often be filled with anti-science, so we asked a couple of Australian octopus experts what they thought of the film.

A “wonderful” introduction to octopuses

Marine biologist Jan Strugnell has been studying octopuses for 20 years. She’s primarily a geneticist, investigating their toxicity and evolution, though she’s also studied Antarctic and deep-sea octopuses. 

She came to watch My Octopus Teacher after a glowing recommendation from a colleague. In Jan’s opinion, the film is a “wonderful” introduction to octopus behaviour and adaptation.

“I’ve been lecturing on cephalopods and their adaptations recently to my aquatic ecophysiology class, and so I’ll be recommending it to them as they’ll love it.”

Jan says there’s certainly some level of anthropomorphism in the documentary, but believes the benefits outweigh that. 

“I think it inspires people to appreciate their natural world, to understand it’s complexity, to learn about the complex interactions that are occurring constantly and the interdependence of marine animals.”

One of the most incredible scenes from the documentary is the octopus’s use of shells to camouflage itself, making it look like a random ball of intense colours and shapes. Jan is all too familiar with this behaviour, adding that they’ve even been known to harness coconut shells for the same effect.

“I think sticking shells or even sand to themselves is similar to this broader shell use,” Jan says.  “They will readily use whatever means they have available to them to avoid detection and survive predation.  

“The documentary does a great job at showing just how vulnerable an octopus is to predation.  Since they’ve lost their own shells, through the course of evolution, they’ve really had to adapt to become very skilled at camouflage in order to survive long enough to reproduce.”

While some viewers have taken issue with the narrator (Craig Foster) centring himself in a film when they really just want to be seeing cool octopus behaviours, Jan sees its value.

“I think the documentary works because of the vulnerability of the narrator and, as viewers, we learn how the experience of spending time in nature, and specifically with the octopus, has changed him.

“I think his slower pace of life and taking time to experience the same location every day is really special and helps us reflect on our busy lives and what wonderful things can be gained by spending time in nature.”

Related: Australia’s most dangerous predators

A good job at highlighting the complex intelligence of octopuses

Marine biologist Zoë Doubleday first studied octopuses for her PhD a decade ago, and has worked on cephalopods on and off since then, studying movement and dispersal, responses to environmental change, fisheries, and basic biology and ecology.

As for her opinion on My Octopus Teacher, she says it was a great film, although a bit “overblown” in some parts. 

“There were a few lines that were anthropomorphised and made me cringe. For example, ‘she is short-lived so she makes the most out of every day and ‘she is constantly alone and hunted’. Well, every animal is hunted and many are alone. 

“Also, ‘she dies for her offspring’, but octopuses are also cannibalistic, so they’re not that good.”

Zoë also takes issues with the dramatisation of the octopus losing her arm.

“I’m sure losing an arm is traumatic for the octopus – but it’s also common. I regularly caught large octopuses in Tasmania with one, two, even three missing arms. And they’re always growing back,” which may be a relief for concerned viewers. 

Overall, it does a good job at highlighting the complex intelligence of octopus, she says. 

“A few of the behaviours were new to me, but none of it surprised me. They always seem to be doing something crazy and new.

“The fact that they are so short-lived, but appear as smart as a dog or other mammal is most fascinating. Individuals seem to adapt and learn independently. I mean, how do they learn all this in such a short time without parents? Just imagine if they lived for 50 years.”