Why the Octopus From Oscar-Winning 'My Octopus Teacher' Is the 'Einstein of Octopuses'

At this year's Oscars, a film called "My Octopus Teacher" took home the award for Best Documentary Feature.

The movie tells the powerful story of how a filmmaker, Craig Foster, forges an unlikely relationship with an octopus living in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa, near Cape Town.

The story begins with Foster revealing how he had felt burned out from years of working on back-breaking nature documentaries. In need of a radical lifestyle change, he began free diving in the cold waters of the underwater kelp forest—an ecosystem he had explored and cherished as a child growing up in the area.

Foster vowed to dive in the kelp forest every day for a year and started to document his experiences. Eventually, he encountered a curious young common octopus, forming a bond with the animal that enabled him to gain unprecedented access to her mysterious world.

He followed the octopus for nearly a year, revealing fascinating insights into the incredible abilities and intelligence of the animal. For example, the film documents how the octopus regenerates a limb after being attacked by a pyjama shark. In another instance, the animal wraps itself up in shells to defend itself from predators. And Foster even filmed the octopus jumping on the back of a shark in order to evade an attack.

Over the course of the film, Foster's relationship with the octopus becomes increasingly intimate, with the bond having a profound effect on him.

Newsweekspoke to the directors of the award-winning documentary, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Newsweek: Can you tell me a little bit about how this project started?

Pippa Ehrlich: It started when Craig decided to change his life... getting back into the water and eventually starting to film, and then meeting this octopus. So he had this incredible experience long before either of us were involved. I started working with Craig in late 2016 and diving with him. He said to me one day, 'I thought I was never gonna make another film. But I had this incredible experience and I captured it all. Would you like to help me?'

It was essentially an archive job. I sat down with piles and piles of hard drives. We started going through the rushes. As soon as I saw those shots of that octopus wrapping herself up with shells to defend herself from sharks and climbing on a shark's back, and when she first starts getting to know him and she's pushing shells up against the camera, and seeing the way that they interacted with one another, there was just no way I was going to say no.

N: Did you immerse yourself in octopus science during the making of the film?

PE: Yeah. And our lives were made easier by the fact that Craig was already completely obsessed. Any new octopus paper that comes out he reads and discusses with scientists. Once we had a cut that we were reasonably happy with, we contacted a professor called Jennifer Mather who is based in Canada and flew her to South Africa. She is an expert in both human psychology and cephalopods.

When you're making a film about the intersection between human beings and an octopus, you couldn't have had a more perfect scientific adviser. She went through the film with us literally scene by scene and just gave us different insights into what she thinks it might be like to be an octopus. You've got to be so careful not to anthropomorphize, but she looks at it from a very pragmatic point of view. She said, 'Imagine if you are a creature that many millions of years ago had a shell and has now traded that shell for a very big brain. What kind of animal does that evolutionary process create?' And the first thing she said was, 'An octopus's life is defined by the tension between fear and curiosity.'

Then she explained that an octopus's survival strategy is to have hundreds of thousands of eggs. Maybe one of those octopuses will make it to the end of their life. That gives you the sense that this octopus that Craig made friends with—one which fights off sharks and manages to reproduce—is the Einstein of octopuses. She really, is the 0.001 percent.

N: Did Mather provide you with any other interesting insights?

PE: We asked her questions like, 'Do you think she enjoyed Craig? Do you think she enjoyed his company?' She said it's hard to say but this is an animal that's spending eight hours sitting in its den. But it's very, very clever. So even if she wasn't emotionally attached to Craig, she was certainly entertained by him. She must have been getting something out of this interaction or she wouldn't have left her den every time he arrived. Craig said sometimes [the octopus] was grumpy, sometimes she was in a bad mood and she didn't even want to look at him—other days she just wanted to play.

The octopus from My Octopus Teacher
The common octopus that Craig Foster forges a relationship with. Craig Foster/Netflix

James Reed: It's a very interesting question. You could argue that in the initial phase she is taking some risks, she doesn't quite know who he is. But then she's not a social animal so you can't really compare her behavior to anything normally social. I wonder... did she assume that far from taking risks by being with him, was she actually minimizing risk by being with him? An assumption that this huge thing that I've just worked out is quite friendly is also very big. That's cool.

PE: It probably changed over time, I imagine. Because in the beginning she was definitely nervous.

N: What do you make of the moment that Craig offers the octopus food after a shark bites off one of its limbs?

JR: When she was injured badly, that was the one time I think when he kind of crosses a line. But I suppose he felt like she could die here. When we talked in interview, I felt like he's quite confused about his role in that.

It's great when it's all very positive and you're swimming together, but then something bad happens and like any human being you wonder, 'Did something I do have an impact on that. Am I partly to blame for this?' That definitely ran quite deep and I don't think he had a real answer for it. You're adapting your ethical behavior to suit the new situation. I don't think previous to that he would have considered providing food to attract her attention. It's an interesting area. I find it one of the most fascinating things to talk to him about. What's okay? Where are the lines?

PE: I think there are a lot of things that Craig is still conflicted about. I think in that situation, you make choices with the information that you have in front of you, and under quite a lot of pressure. But they are parts of the film that he struggles to watch, for sure.

JR: I think the whole situation felt like a bit of a grey area about where he fitted into her life. The downside of that close relationship is what's arguably one of the most fascinating things about it—and any sort of relationship. You get a lot of positives out of it, you will get hurt. We're not too keen about drawing the parallel ourselves about the love story, but the same emotions are at stake. You don't quite know how to behave, and then you live with the guilt of behaving a certain way.

Correction 6/1/2021 5:58 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Pippa Ehrlich's name.

A drone image of Craig Foster
A drone image of Craig Foster swimming in the kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Tom Foster/Netflix