What My Octopus Teacher Has to Teach Us

by John Hocevar

October 26, 2020

If a few hours in a submarine can teach us this much about an ecosystem, imagine what can be learned by spending a year getting to know one octopus?

Most of what we know about the ocean comes from what we have killed – pulled up in nets, caught on hooks, or dredged up from the bottom. If we can’t kill it and count it, some argue, is it really even science at all? This approach might be useful to figure out how many fish we can catch this year and still leave enough so we’ll have fish to catch next year, but it doesn’t teach us how ecosystems function. How do species interact with each other? Where do they breed, where do they seek shelter, how do their behaviors change throughout their lives?

Compare that to My Octopus Teacher, the documentary currently winning over audiences on Netflix with its intimate portrait of a common octopus, filmed on daily visits to its kelp forest home over the course of a year.  Told through the eyes of the South African filmmaker, the relationship between man and mollusc might be the love story we all need right now.

My firm belief that, just as with this octopus, we only really understand an animal when we see it within its natural environment is what brought me to in situ research. Using SCUBA, snorkeling, and submersibles are all ways to take this in situ approach to studying life in the ocean, as is the freediving favored by Craig Foster in My Octopus Teacher. I’ve used submersibles to study our ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and every dive was a revelation.

Back in 2008, I traveled to Seattle to meet with government scientists studying Alaskan fisheries. Greenpeace had just finished the first ever research sub dives in two of the world’s largest underwater canyons, and I was eager to share our findings. It was my first big expedition involving submersibles, and every dive was magical. A pair of Dall’s porpoises followed us down into the depths on one dive, just because they could. We documented bright pink rockfish nestled up against delicate corals and sponges, some of which have been around longer than the United States. I even had my own octopus moment with a beautiful purple giant Pacific octopus so close I could literally see it contemplating what to do with this strange visitor to its home 1400 feet below the surface of the Bering Sea. What a gift.

The giant Pacific octopus I encountered in the Bering Sea.

We had hundreds of hours of scientific footage, covering miles of seafloor habitat. I showed a short clip to their lead ecosystem guy, who was an outlier on a team dominated by fisheries biologists whose primary purpose was to serve the commercial fishing industry. He reacted just as I’d hoped, saying that the footage would change their understanding of how the whole ecosystem works. One short clip made him see things differently, he said, and he was eager to collaborate – this could change their whole approach. I was still naive enough at the time to believe it would happen.

There are some truly great people doing fisheries science, but it is a tough place to do research that the fishing industry doesn’t like. Four separate scientists used the phrase “career suicide” to describe what it would mean even to ask questions that might lead to unpopular answers. It quickly became clear that in situ studies were seen as a threat to the fishing industry’s insistence that Alaska fisheries are the best managed in the world. All that data we provided, which the scientists agreed would not just add to what we know but change the way we look at things, was ignored.

Years later, we worked with a team of Brazilian scientists to explore the Amazon Reef in situ for the first time. They had just published a groundbreaking paper revealing the presence of an enormous reef stretching underneath the plume of the Amazon River mouth. I brought down the lead scientist in a two person sub, and neither one of us knew what we’d find. The images we captured ended up on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. But most of all, I remember the scene when we got back to the ship, and popped open the hatches of our sub. The scientist was mobbed by his colleagues, eager to hear what we saw. Thompson, with tears of joy in his eyes, blurted “everything in our paper is now obsolete.” We learned so much in one short dive that it gave him a completely new picture of the ecosystem.

If a few hours in a submarine can teach us this much about an ecosystem, imagine what can be learned by spending a year getting to know one octopus?

We will never fully understand the complexity of our oceans. Pretending that we can see the whole picture from the scraps of data we get from killing and counting things we rip out of the water will continue to lead to collapsed fisheries, lost habitat, and species extinctions. Expanding our view of science to incorporate more in situ research will help, but even that will never be enough to avoid the kinds of unintended consequences that can cause irreparable environmental and economic devastation. We need to take a more holistic and precautionary approach to stewardship of our oceans.

The best tools we have are often the simplest. To avoid damaging so much of our Blue Planet that it no longer serves as a safe home for ocean animals, or even for us, we need to leave some of it in peace. Establishing a network of areas that are off-limits to fishing, mining, and drilling would be the ocean equivalent of creating national parks on land.  But unfortunately, this kind of common sense approach has so far been less than common. Less than 2% of our oceans are fully protected.

The United Nations is in the midst of negotiating a new Global Ocean Treaty. If we get this right, it will enable us to scale up ocean sanctuaries for the first time. If we get this right, we will be able to go from the less than 2% currently protected to the 30% by 2030 that most marine ecologists say is necessary. You can help! Join the call for a strong Global Ocean Treaty.

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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