Ocean shaman

Words and photographs by Pippa Ehrlich
Additional photography by Craig Foster

“When you are born, you are wild.”

Like many urbanites, Pippa Ehrlich had lost her connection with the ocean. Meeting and diving with Craig Foster, the ‘octopus whisperer’ featured in Blue Planet II, set her on a path of reconnection and opened her eyes to things she never imagined possible. In Issue 01 of Oceanographic, she shared the story of her initial experiences with Foster, prior to the creation of Academy Award-winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher.

This story begins with a tiny shark. I was waist deep in 15 ̊C water when I saw it – a miniature creature swimming close to the surface with a beautiful serpentine pattern running down its back. I had been diving along this coastline for more than five years, but I had never seen a shark as small as this one. I stood frozen as it swam towards me, then, without thinking, I spread my hands and submerged them in the water. The shark pup swam right into them. I was bewildered.

Shysharks are benthic animals, generally sticking close to the ocean floor. What possessed such a tiny, vulnerable animal to swim up the water column into the hands of a land-dwelling giant like me? I shouted to get the attention of my diving companions.

This was my first dive with Craig Foster. I first heard of Craig when I was much younger. He and his brother Damon, made waves in the documentary film world with The Great Dance, a film that gave viewers a glimpse of life and nature through the eyes of the San Bushmen. More recently Craig gave up his career as an award-winning filmmaker to become a naturalist – a modern-day shaman of the ocean wilderness that laps at the shores of Cape Town’s urban jungle.

In late 2014 a friend showed me images from his dives with Craig. At that time, I had a job as a journalist for a shark conservation and research organisation and I begged for a diving invitation. Two months later, I found myself holding a week-old shark that had swum into my hands – a seminal moment for a shark journalist.

We spent the rest of that morning diving without wetsuits in the cold waters of the kelp forest. I knew this environment well, but on that day I felt like I had slipped into a new dimension – the mythical ‘Golden Forest’, as Craig calls it. I watched Craig lift a sleeping catshark and cradle it at the surface. We followed trails in the sand leading to almost invisible sea slugs. I gently held a huge octopus as it suctioned onto my leg. I was conflicted about our contact with these wild creatures; as a science journalist this new way of interacting with nature went against everything I believed, but these gentle exchanges gave me a deep sense of connection that I had not anticipated. I left Craig’s house that afternoon feeling calm and alive, but with a headful of questions. It would be more than two years before I found answers.

freediving octopus
kelp forest

I thought about that day often over the next few months. I emailed Craig to ask if I could join him again and was disappointed to receive no reply. I went diving with friends and bought an expensive open-cell wetsuit. Dive after dive, I moved through the water anticipating another experience that would rekindle that moment with the shark pup, but the kelp forest had reverted into the same beautiful, but alien world I had known before.

Over the next couple of years I travelled to amazing places and met some of the world’s most renowned marine scientists and conservationists. I was grateful for these opportunities, but had become increasingly frustrated that my relationship with nature was mostly limited to the stories I was telling about other people who had daily contact with the ocean. Somehow, I couldn’t forget the little shark and finally, in early spring of 2016, I managed to arrange another dive with Craig.

He watched me thoughtfully as we sat down on a rock looking out into a small, sheltered bay. “When you are born, you are wild,” he explained. “A baby’s body is waiting for a whole range of things to happen to it. We have evolved for thousands of years to go through these things, but because our lifestyles have changed, most of those experiences never happen. Most of us are too soft for the cold. That’s going to be your biggest challenge. You have to get in every day. That’s the only way to access this,” he went on. “Access what exactly?” I wondered silently. This is what I had been trying to work out since our last meeting.

The idea of getting into this frigid world every day without a wetsuit was daunting. In winter temperatures can drop below 10 degrees Celsius. The sky was grey and my feet had already gone numb in the shallow water we had waded through. I was not looking forward to being fully submersed in it.

I gasped as my face hit the water. My body recoiled and I had to fight my first response, which was to get out immediately. I swam closely behind Craig, following the white soles of his feet. I was amazed at how many animals he could find in those first few metres: brittle stars that brood their babies in tiny slits at the base of their arms, rocksucker fish that can bite limpets off rocks, and whelks that are covered in a colony of tiny poisonous organisms that act as a protective cloak. Clearly, Craig had developed an intimate relationship with the forest. He saw meaning in details that I had never considered before. Each animal had a story and every track told a small part of that story.

When we came out of the water 40 minutes later I started to shake, but I was ecstatic. The cold had pumped a powerful cocktail of chemicals into my brain that help to balance the mood hormone serotonin. Once I was dressed and started to warm up, a new feeling flooded my system: a deep sense of relaxation and connection. I felt grounded. I would later learn that when our bodies warm up after being cold, we release prolactin, the same hormone produced by new mothers – the chemical component of the intense love they feel for their babies.

oceanscape Golden Forest
marine life

I left the dive site with homework: before I could dive with Craig again I had to complete ten dives on my own. Day after day I found myself sitting on the sand, dreading the water. For the first few dives I timed myself, exiting the water after 20 minutes. I was so preoccupied with the cold that I could not tune into the environment. I hardly noticed the life unfolding around me. But the physiological effects of the cold were undeniable and for a few hours after every dive, I felt enclosed in a cloud of calm and connection – but I still could not access the Golden Forest. I started to wonder if the magic ingredient was not the cold, or reverence for nature, but Craig himself.

Finally, one Saturday in early November, things started to shift. It was a hot, bright day – luxury conditions for diving in the cold. My friends pulled on their wetsuits and watched me cynically as I stretched on the beach. At the beginning of the dive I felt great, but slowly the cold crept in and the voice in my head grew louder: “20 minutes is up. You can get out now.” I was turning back when someone shouted they had seen an octopus. I swam up to them and was excited to find another animal nearby. They shape-shifted continuously as we watched, growing horns, changing colour and never taking their eyes off us.

I knew the water was cold, but rather than resisting, I loved it. Shards of light shone like laser beams as I swam through passages of kelp and along massive starfish-covered boulders. I felt like a bird weaving my way through that dense, swaying canopy. A school of dreamfish darted in unison, murmuring like a flock of swallows, and a big red roman stared at me from just a few metres ahead. The rocks were covered with corals and urchins and psychedelic anemones. For a moment, I felt part of that world.

I reached the shore on the far side of the boulders and looked up at my friends who were staring at me from the beach in their wetsuits. We had been in the water for more than an hour and they were cold. All I could feel were waves of ecstatic energy. I laughed in the car on the way home. I had stayed in that water longer than I believed possible and felt like I had discovered a superpower. More importantly, I got another glimpse into the magic of the Golden Forest.

Craig was excited about my breakthrough. We started diving together more regularly and slowly he began to share the secrets he is unravelling by learning to track in the kelp forest. He is a code-breaker. Through years of patient observation and tracking, he is hacking into the most powerful and ancient code in existence – the matrix of the natural world. “You need to learn all the animals of the kelp forest. You have to become familiar with what’s normal before you can start picking up on things that are extraordinary. That’s how you find your way,” he explained.

During our dives together I gained new insights into the kelp forest, but also into Craig’s story and discovered that it was not that different from mine. He had spent his twenties and thirties travelling around the world documenting stories about humans and nature. He spent months in the wilderness filming people whose blood and bone depended on their connection to the environment, but at the end of the shoot he returned to the comforts of home and the city. By his early forties he had become frustrated and depressed.

My Octopus Teacher
ocean shaman
My Octopus Teacher

“I felt like an outsider to nature. While I could see the obvious signs the Bushmen showed me, I was unable to grasp the invisible and silent whispers they seemed to be following. With subconscious ease, their minds could interpret the enormous matrix of signs and sounds that make up the symphony of nature. By comparison, my world was deathly silent. I realised then, that the language of the wild was something that would take a lifetime to learn.” It was that yearning to establish an authentic connection with nature that brought him back to the wilderness where he had learned to swim and forage as a little boy.

Craig gave up filmmaking and dedicated himself to diving 365 days a year – and that is how he met the Superstar. A few years into his daily dives he came across a baby octopus that seemed as curious about him as he was about her. He learned to track her from den to den and spent months winning her trust. Eventually she showed him how she hunted crustaceans and outwitted her most deadly predator, the pyjama shark. This became a ground-breaking sequence in the BBC’s Blue Planet II. These experiences allowed Craig to understand – even communicate – with the octopus. By observing the animal almost every day he realised she was talking to him with her body, using colours and shapes: red, for example, meant she felt threatened, while beige indicated comfort and a willingness to interact.

These interactions made him consider how he was perceived in the kelp forest. He altered his own body language during dives, a change which allowed him to interact more intimately with the forest’s residents. On one occasion a massive short-tailed stingray covered him with its body. A few months later, a clawless otter approached to touch his body and face. A common cuttlefish tugged at his fingers and lay in his hand for more than an hour. For Craig, this indicated more than just a shift in his physical presence in the forest – it meant he was finally learning to connect and communicate with nature in that deeper way he had observed as a filmmaker.

Craig and I are now working together full-time on My Octopus Teacher, a feature documentary about his year with the Superstar and the lessons he learned from her. We continue to dive every day and document the stories of the Golden Forest. It may be situated on the doorstep of a major city, but miraculously, the kelp forest continues to be a true wilderness – a magical place where city-dwellers can still go to commune with the ocean and the creatures who call it home.

Additional photography by Craig Foster

Related stories

Explore the current issue

Beautiful photography. Captivating storytelling.
Take a look inside the latest issue of Oceanographic Magazine.

Explore and bUY


Subscribe to the digital edition for just £20 a year, or enjoy it for free courtesy of Oceanographic’s partnership with Marine Conservation Society. No cost, no catch.

Read more