September 20, 2020

My Octopus Teacher and Me

Swati Thiyagarajan

My husband fell in love with an Octopus. Sure, I was jealous. Who wouldn’t be? I mean, after all octopuses have three hearts, blue blood and a brain that is pretty much distributed through the body. These are shape-changing, colour-changing, liquid magicians. Who can compete? So, yes I was jealous, but of him. I wanted an octopus friend too, or any ocean animal friend really. I am easy like that.
Cartoon Illustration by Rohan Chakravarty. Green Humour.

When I first met Craig, there he was, free diving and ocean-loving, a little more graceful and adept in the water than on land and there I was, scared of water, absolutely no oceanic skills like swimming and firmly rooted on land.

Suddenly I found myself living on the shores of a massive wilderness, the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by people who were in the water everyday. An amphibious tribe. Not only were they swimming and diving every day, but they were skin diving. Let me tell you, for a girl who grew up in the tropics, this water is COLD.

As a conservation and wildlife journalist, I had, by the time I met Craig, spent over 12 years traveling and reporting on wildlife and conservation issues around India. I had my own television show BORN WILD, and I absolutely understood the mystique, the lure, the yen to be in nature. Even though I grew up in a coastal city in India, a near drowning incident as a child kept me afraid and out of the water. Plus at the time I was a kid in India, we didn’t have much of a culture of swimming in the ocean or diving or any water sports for that matter.
My first few years in Cape Town was pretty much spent dangling my feet into the water or sitting on the shore watching and waiting for Craig. I was irritated with myself for my reticence and fear. My first day in Cape Town, when I arrived in 2007, Craig drove me straight from the airport to a small cottage by the ocean. It was completely dark when we arrived. The next morning I woke up early and stood at the window admiring the view which included four African penguins waddling across the lawn. Now, I vaguely had an idea that penguins, being Southern Hemisphere birds, were found in South Africa, but I hardly expected to see them on a lawn sloping down to the ocean. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, two cape clawless otters appeared and seemed to be either herding them or chasing them around a boulder. All of them vanished into the water while I stood there gaping. It was a wonderful ‘Welcome to Africa, have a nice day.’ The ocean had already started calling then, it just took me a while to hear.
Finally I realised that I could hardly live in Cape Town and talk about ocean conservation with any level of authenticity unless I approached the ocean myself. Kitted out with a wetsuit, a life jacket and a snorkel I started to attempt a few forays in the shallows. If I could have attached a life raft to myself I would have! It’s hard to describe to water-lovers what that fear of immersing one’s face in water is like.
On one of my forays, an adult octopus came out of her den perhaps curious about the shiny lines on my life jacket and stayed with me for a bit. After ten minutes of wrapping her arms around my hand and my middle, she left, with my wedding ring. It had been crafted by Craig. A polished springbok horn as the ring, wrapped in the centre by silver wire. I loved that ring. I hate diamonds. But as she took off into the big blue with my wedding ring all those years ago, I ought to have known that it was some kind of harbinger. But, that amazing free contact from a creature of the ocean made me more determined than ever to get more comfortable in the water. Ironically, the things that kept a lot of swimming Capetonians out of the water here, like the dense kelp fronds, the sharks and other big animals like sting rays, were for me the biggest draw. The easiest way for Craig to coax me into water was to mention the things we could see, like seven gill sharks or rays or octopuses or various fish.
After the first few swims, I began to get a sense for the wondrous underwater Seaforest beneath the waves. Named The Great African Seaforest, this beautiful floating bamboo kelp, Eklonia maxima, was what helped me gain confidence in the water. At low tide, I felt so safe in the kelp. I could literally lie on top and float just gently supported by this giant marine algae. The silky fronds never once tangled me and in fact, it felt more like an encouraging caress as I slowly shed, first a lifejacket and then wetsuit to be in the water. It still took a few years, but I started taking formal swimming lessons. In a tidal pool on the edge of the ocean.
Craig and the Sea Change Project team, of whom I had become a part, were also incredibly supportive. They would always share their experiences underwater and the visuals recorded, and it was those stories that inspired me to change my fear to wonder. In the human body fear and excitement in a purely physiological level register as the same response. In both responses, as the breaths get shorter, the heart rate starts to increase. Cortisol levels in the body increase and the classic flight or fight response kicks in. Scientists and neurologists have proven this. The butterflies in the tummy, the sweaty palms, all of these are the same. I found that when it was just me and the big blue, it was hard to get my mind to calm down and not be fearful. However when I had animals around me, I forgot my fear and only felt excitement. It really came home to me when I was in a cage surrounded by a dozen massive white sharks. It was my mind. I just had to find a way to change my perception.
The team of the Sea Change Project inspired me to get into the ocean, took me out, and helped me to overcome my fear of water.
The Great African Seaforest with its hypnotic beauty and all of the wonderfully quirky, science-fiction-like creatures and their involved detailed interior lives helped make that transition easier. When Craig would come home every day with stories of the octopus teacher and what she had done that day, or how she had reached out to him, the yearning grew stronger and stronger. I visited her with him a few times, watching from afar as, at the time, I was still battling to swim properly. But I was making an effort. Also it was such a huge part of Craig’s being and he so wanted to be able to share the wonder he felt in the ocean directly with me and not just through photographs and stories. He was incredibly encouraging and gentle with his support to get me in the water.And I found out for myself that there is a magic that happens when you step into a commitment with nature. It is as if when you make that silent promise to forge a deep connection, she opens a door into a secret world that allows you to get a glimpse of possibilities. I had often experienced this on land but to experience it in the ocean was astounding. The display of new behaviour by an animal you have seen everyday; a new animal you haven’t seen before presents itself; a moment of utter peace or bliss that cradles you and changes your day for the better. Most special of all is when an animal reaches out to you completely of its own free will. An otter sits on your back. Fish swim straight into your hands. A giant short-tail stingray circles and stays with you for a long time and a juvenile humpback whale swims up to you in the forest.
But almost more magical is when the little animals suddenly come alive in front of your eyes. What seemed like a rock with urchins and starfish suddenly comes alive to your eyes because daily diving opens them up more. As I learnt to see better and also pull myself down on the kelp for a better look below, the real magic unfurled. Tiny undulating Spanish dancers, masterfully camouflaged Tuberculate cuttlefish, sinuous Snake-nosed klipfish, eye-popping nudibranchs, just to name a few, came into my radar. Small in size, but with giant involved interior lives, and with ingenious defences employed to avoid their predators and cunning strategies to snare their prey.

All of it is life changing, pulling you deeper into a matrix of belonging in the natural world. Close encounters with animals don’t happen every day. They don’t happen every other week or month even, but they happen unexpectedly when you need them to. They helped me to go into the water. But it is also my eye for the smaller now that really deepened my relationship with the Seaforest. Together they all infuse your being with magic, because for that moment, there are no barriers. You come into your full being as the human animal and a great silent, natural sentience is telling you, you belong.

It is not like I don’t feel fear anymore, but I I feel the wonder more. Now, I swim and dive almost every day with Craig and the Sea Change Team. I don’t expect to bond with an octopus or any sea creature in the way he did as that was perhaps a once in a lifetime privilege, but the whole of The Great African Seaforest is now open to me.


Interview by Pippa Ehrlich.

All photos by Craig Foster, Pippa Ehrlich. Videos by Craig Foster. Cover Art by John P Weiss.

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