"My deepest vocation is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch." —Henri Nouwen
Ten winters ago, while my buddy Liberman was visiting us in Laguna Beach from Washington, D.C., a few weeks before Christmas, we spotted them for the first time. A tiny armada of small fishing boats had gathered after sunset and remained until the wee hours of the morning, shining spotlights on the waters about a half-mile from shore, fishing for something.
We hadn’t a clue what their quarry was at first, but after asking around soon discovered it was Humboldt Giant squid. Thousands of them had migrated north from the Sea of Cortez to feed on the krill that thrive in the nearby kelp forests that are protected by the Laguna Beach State Marine Preserve.
Every night for a fortnight or so the giant squid and throngs of eager anglers were there, hovering over the surface of the black waters in circles of fluorescent light that we could see clearly from our back porches, which face the ocean. Just as abruptly as they had appeared, before Christmas arrived, they were gone.
Those squid and the other creatures that inhabit the oceans, tide pools, and kelp forests of the Pacific just down the hill are often on my mind, even if I’ve rarely encountered them in person. That’s because I so very rarely go in the ocean, despite staring at it every day from my perch at the lip of the canyon above it. Especially not now. Not in lockdown. Not with potentially hundreds of unmasked strangers between here and there.
Funny thing is, before the pandemic, learning how to SCUBA dive and snorkel in the (by all accounts) remarkably robust and healthy kelp fields that flank Laguna’s many coves, was on my list of things to do this year, the year I turned 50, my year of living adventurously (if not “dangerously.”) I had hoped to conquer my fear of the powerful Pacific—a much different beast than the Atlantic I’d grown up on in New England—by the time my “big” birthday arrived.
But it’s now October, and I haven’t been in the ocean at all since late last year, and that was just for a wade. I haven’t swum (or attempted to do so without being tumbled like a pair of sneakers in a dryer and fearing for my life) in the Pacific for probably three or four years. At least. Making peace with the sea outside my window will have to wait until the next wave of coronavirus passes or a cold snap thins the mostly-maskless beach crowds out a bit more than it has managed to do since March. But I will learn to SCUBA. And I will snorkel in those kelp fields. Someday sooner than later, Insha’Allah, as my Muslim friends say. God willing.
I’ve been thinking about the ocean and its inhabitants—my neighbors down the hill in the deep—even more often than usual the last couple of weeks since I saw the simply outstaning documentary film My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. If you’ve not yet had a chance to view it, please do yourself a favor and watch it as soon as possible. It’s short (under 1.5 hours) and is not only one of the more unusual and unforgettable stories I’ve heard in a long while, it’s spectacularly well shot, a marvel of photography and narrative filmmaking.
I don’t want to give too much away for those who haven’t yet seen it, but it’s the story of a South African filmmaker from Cape Town, Craig Foster, who grew up on the ocean (literally on it as the bungalow where his family lived to the water was partly below the high-water line, so when storms blew up, the waves would flood the lowest floors of the house), and became a photographer and maker of nature documentaries. But by the time he hit midlife about a decade ago, he was burned out. The joy of adventure and discovery, of capturing never-before-seen images and stories in exotic places had left him. He was sick, depressed, and despondent as the “great purpose of [his] life was now in pieces.” So, he got back in the ocean to explore the very lagoons, reefs, tidal pools, and underwater forests that had captured his imagination as a child.
Returning to the water saved his life, Foster says, and the octopus he first met 10 years ago when he first began free-diving daily, forever transformed it. “In the beginning it’s a hard thing to get in this ocean. It’s one of the wildest, most scary places to swim on the planet,” he says. It’s cold, “takes your breath away” cold, “and you just have to relax, and then you’ll get this beautiful window of time for 10, 15 minutes when suddenly everything feels OK. The cold upgrades the brain…a flood of chemicals every time you immerse in that cold water—your whole body comes alive.
“As it adapts, it becomes easier and easier, and eventually, after about a year, you start to crave the cold,” he says, and then once you’re in the “three-dimensional forest” underwater, “ you can go anywhere you want; you’re flying.”
Soon Foster discovered a spot amidst the roaring “Cape of Storms” where the kelp forest dampens ocean swells. “All around it, the water is murky and you can’t see a thing, but then there’s this 20-meter patch where it opens up and the light penetrates the darkness,” where he could dive and see everything.
One day, diving in that 20-meter zone, Foster caught a glimpse of something strange in his periphery. At first glance, it appeared to be a pile of ocean detritus. But it wasn’t. It was an octopus that had camouflaged itself by gripping a bunch of shells and rocks with its eight tentacles covered in thousands of suction cups, turned itself inside out by covering its fragile head with the rest of its body, so that the seashells, bits of coral, and rocks were on the outside, like a shield.
When the octopus determined she was no longer in danger, she dropped all the stuff, unfolded herself, and gracefully swam away toward the safety of her den.
The details of Foster’s relationship with this octopus are better witnessed than retold here (really, please watch this film; you’ll thank me), but suffice to say that by connecting with the remarkable creature and growing to understand her by spending hours and hours, day after day observing her as she lived, slept, hunted, avoided being eaten by sharks, played with other sea life, mated, gave birth, and eventually died, taught him more about himself and the world than he ever could have imagined.
Despite being classified as mollusks, octopi are sentient, intelligent creatures, on a par with a dog or a cat; they recognize faces, have moods and emotions, and are extremely clever at adapting to any situation. Foster called her a “liquid creature,” able to pour herself through even the smallest openings. Underwater she practically flew like a bird, on the ocean floor she could ramble on all eight legs or hop on one “foot.”
It was only when Foster slowed down, waaaaaay down, and took the time to notice such details of the octopus’ habits and habitat that the rest of the world and his understanding of it, broke wide open. He remembered a tribe of expert hunters in the Kalahari desert he had made a documentary about years earlier. They would see “incredibly subtle changes in the landscape…things my eye couldn’t even see,” he recalled. “They were just inside of the natural world. And I could feel I was outside. And I had this deep longing to be inside that world.”
The film took a decade to create. It was shot with 20 different cameras over a span of10 years, producing hundreds of hours of footage. The technology Foster and his collaborators used evolved leaps and bounds during the years they were shooting; the quality of the footage varied greatly, depending on when it was shot and what the conditions were at the time. One of the extraordinary feats of this visually stunning film is the uniform quality of the footage, a miracle of modern technology and expertise wrought by a phalanx of photographers, editors, directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, and a young, virtuoso Baselight colorist named Kyle Stroebel.
Shooting underwater, where light behaves in a vastly different way than it does above the surface, is a complicated business. When you’re underwater looking up at the sky, the water appears to be blue, but isn’t. Clear water is colorless. The “blue” of the ocean is a trick of the light. Like blue eyes and the sky, which aren’t blue either but in their colorlessness reflect the blue end of the light spectrum. Water molecules absorb most of the red, yellow, and green light and scatters the blue. The deeper (and denser) the water, the darker the blue appears to be. And where there is a lot of phytoplankton (algae), which contains the green pigment chlorophyll, the water can appear to be greenish-blue, turquoise, or even bright green. All of that blue and green makes it difficult to photograph other colors on the light spectrum underwater.
Perhaps the most astonishing of the octopus’ adaptations was her ability to change not just color, but pattern, texture, and skin as well. Sometimes she was a smooth, mottled burgundy and puce with dark orange spots while floating near whorls of muted-purple coral; other times she was variegated beige and brown with bumps and even horns that mimicked the surrounding geography; while hiding from a pyjama shark amidst tall seaweed, she made herself long, and turned a deep, myrtle green with patches of chartreuse and lemon that matched bolts of light from above the water filtered through the algae.
While scientists long have understood an octopus’ camouflaging to be a physical response to a perceived threat or opportunity to feed (because of something the animal sees with its two large eyes), new research from evolutionary biologists in California shows that an octopus’ skin also involuntarily changes color and other characteristics in direct response to sunlight, without input from its eyes or brain.
That the My Octopus Teacher audience is able to see those subtle and spectacular changes in such detail, along with the riot of colors present in anemones, jelly fish, and myriad other fish, flora, and fauna while simultaneously feeling like we are swimming bare-shoulder-to-bare-shoulder with Foster without stopping to wonder, ‘Where the heck is the camera?’ is, in a word, magical.
As a photographer and a storyteller, to me it’s astonishing.
I’ve seen the film a few times now—I keep going back to relive details and moments that leave me awestruck, it’s that kind of an experience—and each time the credits roll, I find myself thinking the same thing: Thank God, Foster woke up.
If he didn’t shake himself out of the stupor of malaise 10 years ago and get back in the water, if he hadn’t been able to maintain his practice of diving daily, if he hadn’t been able to slow down enough to be fully present, he might never have seen her. The octopus. He might never have been still enough and patient enough for the moment when she made contact—uncoiling her delicate tentacle, reaching out, and gently wrapping it around his fingers.
If Foster hadn’t have gone back day after day, wide awake and fully alive in the moment, he might not have discovered the fathomless beauty and wonder ever-present beneath the surface. He might not have understood the interconnectedness of everything when the octopus grasped his shoulder, looked him in the eye, snuggled into his chest, and stayed there in a numinous embrace.
But he did. And now, so can we.