My Octopus Teacher

Octopus Garden

I love the ocean. I was fortunate enough to spend decades snorkeling along the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands, usually alone. The water was my sanctuary. I could leave all my cares on the shore and silence my mind. I learned how to be very quiet while swimming which gave me innumerable encounters with all manner of sea life.

Want to dance with feeding mantas?  Become a manta. Be still within, slow your pace and raise one arm (as they raise their ‘wing’ while coming toward you), then turn away simultaneously. It’s kind of like giving each other a high five but without actually touching the manta.

Dreaming of a dolphin encounter? Well, besides needing a bit of luck and knowing your timing, you might get to play the leaf game with them. If you spot a pod coming your way, bring a sturdy leaf into the water, wave it around below the surface and let it go when they see it. If they want to play with you, the chase is ON! They will take turns if you can keep up. If they don’t want to play, they will be gone in a flash. (Sometimes, slapping one of your fins on the water might bring them around.)

Turtle time? Again, become a turtle. Swim quietly and slowly while you move your arms like they move their flippers.

Important tip – while snorkeling and trying to catch up with any sea life, slow down and keep your fins below the surface as much as possible. Except for the slap mentioned above, don’t let your fins slap the surface. That creates noise that travels a long way underwater. Sea life will hear it and flee if spooked. 

Of all of the sea creatures I have spent time with, the octopus is by far my favorite. These intelligent animals are experts at camouflage. They will see you well before you see them. Even if you are a foot away, you might not know they are there. When I managed to spy one on a reef, I quietly dove below the reef and slowly rose up to meet them. Without fail, the octopus would stretch its head over the reef to watch me and then gradually sink behind the reef as I would rise. It was a game we played often. When swimming over sandy areas, I looked for the octopus’ ‘dump’. Not easy to see if you don’t know their rubbish habits – the empty shells from meals, broken glass or pieces of shell to suction on to and hide their den. If they weren’t home, I would comb through their garbage to find shells. I have held tiny octopus in my palm, smaller than a cricket, to show to my children when they were little. (Yes, I quickly let them go.)

It has been many years since I lived in Hawaii. I miss the ocean, but I go back from time to time. Sometimes a film will catch my eye and allow me to ‘be’ in the water again. One such film is called My Octopus Teacher, a documentary on Netflix. The story is about a man named Craig Foster, who took to the sea to sooth his soul. He swam armed only with mask, fins and camera in the cold and dangerous waters off the South African coast. Swimming through the kelp forest, he encounters a female octopus, among many other beautiful sea creatures. Check out the link to learn more about the film. It is a moving tribute to the fantastic and amazing octopus.  Or listen to the NPR story about it.

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~ Teresa