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Published on July 20, 2021

The View from my Seat

We had Lassie; today’s youth has – octopus

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

When the Academy Award for Best Documentary went to a film about an octopus, I could only shake my head.

The Oscars, it seemed, were getting weirder every year.

Having never heard of Netflix’s “My Octopus Teacher,” I did some Oscar night research.

According to promotional material, the documentary is about “a filmmaker forging an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world.”

Sound ridiculous? That is what I thought … at first.

The filmmaker, South African Craig Foster, felt his family life was suffering due to a high-stress lifestyle.

He decides to seek solace in a cove he had explored as a child. He has an encounter with a female octopus and decides to devote a year to filming her and learning all he could about her.

Foster says the filming taught him about the fragility of life and humanity’s connection to nature. He also says his bond with the octopus helped him develop a deeper bond with his son.

I was still skeptical.

I grew up watching television when we had animal stars such as Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Fury.
But to me and many Hollywood critics, it is one thing to anthropomorphize – or assign human characteristics - to a dog or a horse.

But bonding with an eight-tentacled cephalopod? An octopus seems more creepy than cuddly.
As Oxford professor Amia Sriniasan wrote in an essay, the octopus is probably “the closest we can come on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.”

How creepy is an octopus? Here are some weird characteristics from Smithsonian Magazine:
An octopus has three hearts with two of the hearts working exclusively to move blood beyond the animal’s gills. The third keeps circulation flowing for the organs.

Two-thirds of an octopus’ neurons reside in it arms, not its head. As a result, the arms can problem-solve while their owner can do something else.

An octopus has blue blood. To survive in the deep ocean, octopuses evolved a copper rather than an iron-based blood, which turns their blood blue.

Mating and parenthood are brief affairs for octopuses, who die shortly afterward.

After my research, I decided I would pass on “My Octopus Teacher.”

To my surprise, however, the documentary became so popular that Harvard assembled scholars to help explain why.

For many, according to the Harvard Gazette, it was likely the perfect pandemic-era antidote, a feel-good, otherworldly escape from a horrific year.

Others say the film’s appeal has as much to do with its emotional weight, the allure of its unlikely, non-human star and the filmmaker’s perseverance.

I began thinking I should watch it.

Then one day my daughter and grandkids told me they had watched a tremendous documentary. You guessed it. It was “My Octopus Teacher.”

That did it. I dove in.

Turns out the motion picture academy was right. I was immediately captivated.

My wife, who doesn’t always agree with my viewing tastes, paused to watch on her way through the room. She stayed the whole 85 minutes and has watched it several times since.

I am not sure how much I buy into the whole bonding with an octopus idea, but regardless, “My Octopus Teacher” is a beautiful wildlife documentary that features the full range of life’s experiences.

We see ordinary scenes of the octopus just living, eating and sleeping, and there are genuinely suspenseful scenes of the octopus’ attempts to evade predators.

Aristotle, in his writings on animals, thought octopuses were stupid, but I marveled at this octopus’ cunning as she escapes a pajama shark.

Despite initial reservations, I recommend “My Octopus Teacher” highly, if for no other reason than it shows that the real world is more complex and more interesting than fiction.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)