"My Octopus Teacher" and the Power of Place, Practice, and Patience

“My Octopus Teacher” is Craig Foster’s story of how he befriended an octopus while diving off the coast of South Africa. That relationship, and the commitment he made to the environment they shared, transformed his life.

In 2011, Foster returned to his childhood home nearly wrecked by years of travel. Despite a career making acclaimed nature documentaries, he found himself disconnected from the natural world. He lost his desire to work. His relationships were tenuous. The one thing he still knew for certain was diving, something he’d done since he was a small child. He made a commitment to free dive every day, hoping it would help him recover. In doing so not only did he restore his vitality, but he started a conservation NGO, The SeaChange Project, and made this enchanting film.

In the film, Foster spends a year observing the octopus and learns much from her, but the film is about more. If you feel disconnected from the things that you love, if you are daunted by the next challenge in your practice, or if you simply are tired, watch this film.

Here are three reasons that watching this film will remind you of why you pursue the life and goals you do:

1. Your Sense of Place

Foster returns to his childhood home, on the coast of South Africa near Cape Town, and commits to diving every day for a year. Diving is familiar to him: He’s been doing it since he was a small child. He dives without oxygen or a wetsuit in a giant kelp forest. The place is dangerous, home to sharks  and other predators. But more threatening  than the animals are the waves.  Nicknamed the Cape of Storms, some of the world’s biggest surfing waves are here. Foster learns to read the weather, the currents, and knows when it is safe to dive. He knows he could easily be killed. His daily routine allows him to understand how the ecosystem works. The animals, the octopus especially, get used to him and ignore him, “going about their business.”  Over the course of the year, Foster gains strength and heals. He tells his story, interspersing the narrative with film footage of the dreamy world underwater.  He learns that he “is not part of the place, but because of it.”

2. Your Commitment to A Practice

Foster commits to diving every day in the ocean that is 8 degrees Celsius (about 44 degrees Fahrenheit). He doesn’t wear a wetsuit and he doesn’t use oxygen. He learns to move up and down in the water to observe but not disturb the animals. The film shows him gliding among kelp that is 30 to 40 feet tall. He closely examines the creatures-sharks, fish, mollusks, and octopi. He realizes that as he becomes accustomed to the environment, the inhabitants are becoming accustomed to him too. It is then that the octopus lets him into her world. She allows him to follow her. The focus is no longer him, but the life of this mysterious creature.

Foster’s initial goal was to simply dive every day. While the film takes place over the course of a year (2011), in interviews he talks about how he continues to dive every day, ten years on. The daily commitment brought him back into his body, he says. His drive to make films returned, as well as a new goal to conserve the environment. Over the decade, he taught his son to dive and he now brings others along to dive and experience the place.

3. Your Patience with Progress

In his interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Foster recalls how at first he shivered every day when he swam. Then, about a year into his practice, he realizes one day that he was able to regulate his body temperature and is comfortable in the cold water. The daily routine enables him to adapt.

Despite achieving a flow state of being able to “just relax”  in the water, Foster admits to making many mistakes. One day when the octopus was following him across the ocean floor, he dropped a tool and startled her.  She disappeared. He learned that he must prepare his kit properly before diving. In order to find her again, he thinks back to the trackers he met in the Kalahari desert and uses their lessons to read the environment. It takes him a week to understand the signs she leaves and how to follow her clues. Foster eventually finds the octopus in her new den. He continues to learn from her over the course of many months.

The parallels between Foster’s experience and the events of this past year are obvious. But, instead of rehashing what we already know, I will simply say watch this film. At the very least, it will transport you to a magical place. But what I hope it will do is remind you of your very own magical place and will motivate you to get back out there and reconnect with what it has to offer.

Rangeley, Maine: On and Off the Water

If your idea of a getaway includes the quiet sounds of kayakers paddling in the morning or loons calling at night, then you need to head to the Rangeley Lakes region in western Maine. Fishing on its pristine lakes in remote camps made it famous but today visitors head to the area to experience almost every outdoor activity whether on the water, the nearby peaks, or trails in between. The drive from central New England is about four hours and the cell service is suspect, but you’ll want to lie in that lakeside hammock for only so long before checking out what Rangeley has to offer. Here are a few starters to get you warmed up and away from camp, but still near the water.

Credit: Sonja Murphy

Hike Bald Mountain

Bald Mountain is located in nearby Oquossoc and has the best views of Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic Lakes. The most popular trailhead is on Bald Mountain Road, about a mile off of Route 4. At 2,443 feet, this 2-mile round-trip hike offers a variety of features. Beginning in a hardwood forest, the path climbs steadily and is soon crisscrossed by a variety of frenetic tree roots. The trail then changes to rock, requiring a careful scramble to the top. At the summit there are picnic tables and an observation tower. The views include the surrounding lakes and mountains, like Saddleback and Mount Washington. This is a perfect hike for kids as it is quick and the location is easily accessible.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Lounge at Smalls Falls

Smalls Falls in Madrid is just 15 minutes south of Rangeley. Don’t let the typical off-the-road rest area and picnicking spot dismay you. Just beyond the parking lot is the Sandy River. From the bridge look right and you’ll see how the river above drops over four waterfalls into just as many pools. Once you cross, you’ll find a series of short trails to explore. The most popular trail hugs the rocks to the top of the falls. There are plenty of places to wade and enjoy the refreshing water. If you follow the trails that lead away from that spot you’ll discover a second artery of water. There the river has cut sharply into the earth and drops twenty feet below the trail to reveal a quieter place to explore.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Explore the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust Trails

The Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust is a conservation group that maintains trails throughout the region. The seven trails cover 35 miles and are designed for most skill levels. For example, the one mile Bonney Point trail leads to a quiet cove on Rangeley Lake. Along the way you’ll encounter old stone walls and other reminders of how the land was once used. Further south on Route 4, closer to Rangeley proper, is the Hunter Cove Wildlife Sanctuary. There are several loops to explore on this easy 1.5-mile path. This summer some of the trails are closed for repairs, but check out the cove to watch the loons and other waterfowl who call it home. The real gem in this system is the walk to Cascade Gorge and Falls. Located in Sandy River Plantation, the trail leads you a mile up the river. There are several spots to explore the rocks and water. Information about all of these hikes is available on the organization’s website.

Credit: Rene Paquette
Credit: Rene Paquette

Run the Mingo Springs Trail

A great place to trail run or leisurely stroll, the Mingo Springs Trail, is a 3 mile loop around the Mingo Springs Golf Club. A designated Audubon trail, the designers planned the trail with education and outreach in mind. Parking for the trail is near the driving range. Cross the street to the red blazes that lead you around the back nine of the golf course for 2 miles. The trail dips and turns through a variety of habitats. What begins as a damp forest eventually turns into a dappled meadow. The trail rises slightly through a patch of pine before meeting Mingo Loop. Follow the road back to the parking lot or cross the road to continue on the blue blazed section of the trail. This part of the trail dips into a hardwood forest then encircles a huge lupine meadow that is spectacular when in season. The trail finishes by crossing through the Golf Course parking lot and passing the clubhouse.

Do you have any offerings for what to do in the Rangeley region? If so, leave them in the comments.

Sunday Sanctuary

The alarm wakes me to the grey light of early morning. I slide out of bed and pull on my long underwear in the coolness of our bedroom. I try to be quiet, thinking that I don’t want to wake anyone. When I reach the foot of the stairs I hear my husband telling my son the time. It is 6 am on a winter Sunday. We are up this early because we are skiers and this is our day to head to the mountain. In the kitchen, I set the coffee to brew then pack our lunches. The guys make it to living room where the boy wraps himself in blankets on the couch as my husband arranges his clothes. A younger version of myself would not have done this: set the alarm on a weekend in advance of heading into the cold. A younger version of myself would not recognize that I am, in part, someone who regularly makes time to be outside in any season.

Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup
Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup

My husband joins me in the kitchen. We stand at the counter drinking our coffee in silence. Outside, the sky lightens.  There’s no need to check the weather. Skiing happens every weekend from Christmas break until the end of the season. It’s just what we do.  When I was younger I’d been a fickle skier at best, taking it up and giving it up in equal measure. By the time I met my husband, I’d discovered the outdoors. A few trips out west and skiing with a group of women changed the notions I had about my capabilities and interests. It then made sense when our son came along that we’d get him on the mountain. Lessons were on Sunday mornings, giving us time to ski on our own. We kept that date, now skiing as a family.

When I reach the foot of the stairs I hear my husband telling my son the time. It is 6 am on a winter Sunday.

We’ve learned that the less we have to do in the morning, the easier it is to get out of the house. Some time on Saturday we packed the skis. Breakfast is quick, then we all gather in the living room to check bags, put on travel layers, and divvy up the loads to take to the car. We let the quiet of Sunday morning resume as the drive takes us on empty back roads, past houses still dark. In the valley below the mountain that the traffic picks up. We pass the glowing convenience store, cars with ski racks filling its lot.  But we’re still ahead of most people. In fact, as we drive into the ski area parking lot, we’re directed by the attendants toward the front.

Arriving even a half hour before most people reduces the frustration of skiing on a weekend. The walk to the lodge is a quick one and only a dozen or more people are getting dressed as we easily find a place to do the same. We all talk in low tones, moving with a deliberate efficiency. The best part about being outside in winter is the calm quiet that permeates and settles over everything. This exists on a ski mountain, but you have to be early to catch it.

Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup
Courtesy: Ruth Hartnup

Once outside we make the longest walk of the day, the first trek up to the lift line. We sweat a little carrying our gear and for a moment we wonder if this is really worth it. There’s no lift line. We pop our skis on and clamber into the chair. The chill doesn’t catch us and when we are settled and moving up the mountain, we relax. We take a couple of deep breaths. It’s beautiful, no matter which way you see it. The sky. The trees. The cold air moving around us.  At the trailhead we decide on the route down, then push off, leaving our first tracks of the day.

A decade, or more, ago, I would have never envisioned doing this. Having a family and being deliberate about how we want to raise our son and spend our time requires thoughtfulness. We ski in most conditions. We make it to lunch, or long after. Every week it’s the same and every week it’s different. We’ve learned how to work a good routine. We’ve made it a practice, which has made finding our way outside on the regular is easy to do.