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Into the Great African Sea Forest

David Rothenberg in conversation with
Pippa Ehrlich, director of the film
My Octopus Teacher

INTO THE GREAT AFRICAN SEA FOREST David Rothenberg in conversation with Pippa Ehrlich, director of the film My Octopus Teacher

When the documentary My Octopus Teacher debuted on Netflix this past September, it ushered in a new approach to nature filmmaking, one in which the interaction between humans and other creatures takes center stage. The documentary chronicles the intimate relationship that developed between South African filmmaker Craig Foster and a wild common octopus he met while freediving in the kelp forests near his Cape Town home—a daily therapeutic activity he took up to help him recover from career burnout. So moved was he by the octopus’s capacity to share her world, that he founded the Sea Change Project, a conservation organization dedicated to preserving her fragile coastal habitat. He also wanted to share his own personal experience in an “incredible wilderness full of weird and wonderful creatures.”

But, as Foster explains it, it can be difficult to direct your own story, no matter how much you may know about your craft, so he brought in fellow diver Pippa Ehrlich to direct the film. Since its release, the film has captivated millions, providing a welcome sense of wonder as that strange year of 2020 drew to a close. Explorers Journal contributing editor David Rothenberg recently caught up with Ehrlich via Zoom only hours after she emerged from a morning dive in the cool waters of the Great African Sea Forest, which continues to draw her in on a daily basis.

David Rothenberg: What was today’s dive like? What did you see?

Pippa Ehrlich: The wind was howling, so the visibility was quite poor. We decided to go into the tidal pool. I saw an octopus and a thing called a Christmas tree worm, which is beautiful. It twists up like a Christmas tree and waves with these feathery-like tentacles in the water column, waiting to trap tiny bits of food. And if you touch it, it suddenly sucks back inside its hole. I was just showing some friends a few things. It’s quite amazing. If you take people who don’t know that place well, even something small can really blow their minds.

DR: When did you first dive in the kelp forest?

PE: In 2010, shortly after I moved to Cape Town. Back then, I was wearing a five-mil wetsuit, with ten mils on my chest. But I didn’t realize how little I knew about that environment until 2015, when I began diving with Craig Foster and my friend Ross Frylinck, who cofounded the Sea Change Project with Craig. I felt as if I was walking into a totally new ecosystem, guided by Craig’s gift for reading the natural world, specifically the kelp forest. Even though I had been diving in the kelp forest for several years, it was like putting on a pair of magical glasses.

DR: And Craig had you freediving only—no wetsuit, no compressed air.

PE: At first, I was very intimidated by it all. But Ross had told me quite a bit about the physical effects of freediving in such cold water. As I soon learned, the shock of the frigid water brings you into the present in a very visceral way—the cold blasting through any other thoughts you might have in your mind. When you start doing something for the first time, it’s an incredibly exciting and awakening experience. Your mind and body start tuning into something entirely new. And that is precisely what happened.

DR: By now you have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours diving down there.

PE: I think I’m probably still in the hundreds, although I might be at a thousand by now.

DR: The film has been hailed for its innovative approach to nature documentaries. What led to your radical departure from the norm?

PE: Traditional “blue chip” natural history is very impersonal. It’s all about the animal. But Craig’s own story was deeply personal. He learned so much from this animal. He felt so privileged to have seen into her world. I think he’s still processing what that means.

When we started on the project, Craig had captured some of their interactions on film, but we had very few shots with Craig actually in the picture, apart from three or four things that he self-shot, which were absolutely golden for us. So, we spent a lot of time filming him in the kelp forest, getting general beautiful shots of the environment, getting shots of other animals that live there, and getting the extreme close-ups we needed.

One of the interesting things about the story is that it doesn’t speak to a specific threat that we are exposing or a cause that we are arguing for—certainly not in an overt way. The cause is a general reconnection with the natural world because all of the environmental problems we see today are a symptom of our disconnection and lack of understanding when it comes to nature and how complex natural systems work.

DR: Part of this film for you as director must’ve involved getting inside someone else’s head about his own story, something that he was so wrapped up in for so many years. Do you feel like you were able to relay his vision of what happened with this one special octopus?

PE: Yeah, I do. I feel that I’ve made my way into his vision of what it’s like to commit yourself to having a deep relationship with a wild place—more than just one octopus. Filmmaking is a funny thing. When you become so involved in a project like this for such a long period of time, to tell such a deeply personal story as Craig’s, you do start to understand how someone else thinks, and that’s your job.

DR: Can we understand what it’s like to be an octopus?

PE: I don’t think you can ever completely put yourself into the mind of another animal, but certainly you can start to imagine their world from the things that you know about them. We actually had a Canadian octopus psychologist, Jennifer Mather, consulting with us. The first thing she said was: “Everything in an octopus’s life is about the conflict between curiosity and fear.” So that’s the first bit of information that you can take into consideration when you try to imagine what life looks like from their point of view. And then you can imagine the fact that you’ve got these eight amazing arms that can move and twist like an elephant’s trunk. And each of the arms to some degree has a mind of its own. You can imagine what it must be like to manage that.

Then you can think about the fact that the kelp forest is just packed with predators. And when you are a mollusk that’s traded the safety of a shell for the potential of a highly developed brain, then you can imagine how vulnerable you must feel all the time, and how your whole reality becomes about finding ways to outwit predators, catch prey, and keep yourself entertained. When we look into an octopus’s eye—and I wouldn’t say I’m getting into the mind of an octopus—that creature engages with me. It stares straight back.

When I swim out into the kelp forest and the visibility is poor, I think about the fact that this is one of the great white shark hotspots of the world. At that moment, it is clear that I too am prey, just like the octopus. I think human beings are under an illusion that we have kind of hacked our way out of the system, climbed out of the food chain, but we haven’t. That’s just an impression that we have, we are walking among the creatures that we share this place with. The coronavirus has proven that to us—it is a tiny, tiny thing that has brought us to our knees. I think when you spend so much time in the natural world, you can’t predict anything. I’m learning to weigh things up all the time, figure out what’s safe. While I think the octopus and I face similar challenges in that world, it’s much more vulnerable, but it’s got superpowers that I could never dream of.

DR: You have become quite involved with the Sea Change Project through making this film.

PE: When Craig and Ross launched the Sea Change Project, their goal was to bring together a group of scientists and storytellers who were dedicated to spending time in nature every day, specifically the kelp forest, telling those stories in a way that allows people to generate an emotive connection in themselves and with the natural world. Twenty-five percent of our coastline is covered by kelp forests, and they are the second most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change. In some places they are shifting, and in others they are disappearing completely. Tasmania’s disappeared in just a few years because of a warm current drifting down that allowed sea urchins to devour it. It’s something that no one’s talking about, everyone’s talking about coral reefs and rainforests, but no one even knows that we have giant underwater kelp forests in so many places.

DR:  How has this film affected your conservation work?

PE: For Sea Change Project specifically, the film aimed to showcase the Great African Sea Forest and I think the environment really speaks for itself in the film. The response to it has been incredible for us. It’s been a complete game changer. We went from a tiny little organization with a social media following of maybe 3,500 to nearly 70,000, and that’s in a matter of weeks. We were receiving an email every three seconds the day after the film went live. Now we have organizations wanting to talk to us that we’ve been wanting to get in touch with for a very long time. We didn’t anticipate the film to be interpreted as an impact project in the way that it has been, but we couldn’t be happier that it’s worked out like this.

DR: What message would you offer to people who may not be divers, who might be far from the sea, somewhere else in the world?

PE: Wherever you are, there are sentient wild beings. You will do yourself an enormous favor by slowing down and having a good, quiet experience with other creatures. The other day, for instance, I jumped in the pool and I pulled out a very strange-looking fly and I put it on the bricks and then I sat and watched it dry itself for about ten minutes. This was the best part of my day, watching an insect dry itself. It’s a miraculous thing just to observe. It makes you feel good. I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’s something we’ve been doing since the beginning of time—observing other animals, because knowing them was critical to our survival.

Hopefully, our film shares a perspective on the potential relationship between people and the natural world, one in which we start viewing ourselves as part of this place, not apart from it, and narcissistically in charge of it. We need to reimagine how we relate to nature. It’s not as if we can leave tomorrow and go to another planet. We evolved on Earth along with all of the animals that we shared the planet with since the beginning of time. We need a new vision. And we need to recognize the fact that nature is not just important because it provides. It is critical for a healthy mind, body, and spirit. We evolved in this world. Physiologically we’re animals, and animals are designed to be in tune with nature.

DR: What is next for you?

PE: While we were making the film, we were very focused, editing every day as we were diving. That was pretty much the priority of my life for three whole years. Now that we’ve finished the process, a lot of things have drawn our attention away from the natural world—making the film festival rounds and doing interviews. I am looking forward to taking some time out to reimmerse.

In storytelling, there’s a balance to be struck between feeling and fact, and you want to give people just enough information that they can make sense of what’s going on and have their minds blown every now and again, but not too much information so that the heart connection is dissolved.

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