"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.