A regret. Point of Order doesn’t cover octopi with sufficient rigour and detail.
So it’s a pleasure to recommend to readers looking to expand their knowledge the Netflix documentary My Octopus Teacher.
The plot is sui generis. Craig Foster, a film-maker in crisis, retires to an isolated cottage on the far edge of the world (the Cape of Good Hope). Each day he swims in the kelp forest at the joining point of the land and the ocean, until he knows it as well as his home, indeed it becomes his home.
And it is also the home of the Octopus.
The intelligence of the octopus is scientifically well attested. As Foster puts it, a large and clever snail, without a shell, which lives for one year.
His profound and careful observations of his Octopus Friend may conceivably add no more to what is already known from the scientific literature, although it is doubtful that anyone else has observed an octopus in the wild so closely and certainly no one can have filmed it with such clarity, beauty and indeed love.
For Foster’s attempt to penetrate the octopus emotional life is surely unique. Which leads one to surmise that it could eventually be ranked with the efforts of Gilbert White at Selborne, Jane Goodall at the Gombe Stream and perhaps even Darwin in the Galapagos.
As a starting proposition, one expects the cleverer animals to respond to other sentient organisms. They will evaluate them as part of the environment, consider them as a potential threat, use them where possible, live with them where necessary, and perhaps even play with them. All this the Octopus does.
But Foster’s detailed observations raise more profound questions about the ability of lesser sentient creatures (and certainly giant snails) to form emotional bonds. They lead to reflection on the nature of emotion, both in its own right and as an evolutionary development (assuming you run with current scientific orthodoxy).
He walks a razor thin line between sentimentality and recognition of an uncategorisable phenomenon. Towards the end of the documentary, the Octopus snuggles up to him and stretches out an affectionate tentacle, and you can’t suppress the thought that she might just be assessing his potential as a suitable mate (or more prosaically coming into heat).
Foster assesses the relationship in the conventional terms of humans needing to respect non-human creatures and their environment. All true and worthy.
But perhaps he is too modest or too focused on the visual splendour of the kelp world to realise that his unique record is an important step on the path to deeper understanding of the emotional life of non-human beings.
And the rest of us can enjoy the extraordinary concatenation of events: a talented filmmaker, an obsessive personality, a breakdown, an unusual connection to a unique location and a decision to observe closely where no one else has done so. The same serendipity which saw Louis Leakey select an untrained youngster to observe the chimpanzees at Gombe or Robert FitzRoy choose a shy amateur natural historian as an agreeable gentleman companion for the voyage of the Beagle.
Update: 6 December
Thanks to our alert readership for querying the pluralisation of Octopus. It’s contentious enough for Merriam-Webster to devote a short historical essay to the topic, with their summary here:
“The three main plurals for octopus come from the different ways the English language adopts plurals. Octopi is the oldest plural of octopus, coming from the belief that Latin origins should have Latin endings. Octopuses is the next plural, which gives the word an English ending to match its adoption as an English word. Lastly, octopodes stems from the belief that because octopus is originally Greek, it should have a Greek ending.”