Craig Foster of My Octopus Teacher — How to Find the Wild in a Tame World

Craig Foster of My Octopus Teacher — How to Find the Wild in a Tame World

Preview (00:00:00)

  • Craig Foster was studying sea hares with a marine biologist when an octopus grabbed his camera.
  • The octopus turned the camera and started filming them, providing a unique perspective from the octopus's point of view.

A morning ray. (00:01:42)

  • Before the interview, Craig Foster went for a swim in the Great African Seaforest.
  • He encountered an enormous white stingray, the biggest species in the world, covered in a fine layer of sand.
  • Foster had to move slowly and cautiously to avoid agitating the stingray, which has a necrotic poison.
  • He glided alongside the stingray for about 10 minutes, an incredible experience in the wild.

Connecting with the sea is a family tradition. (00:04:05)

  • Craig Foster's family has a tradition of dunking their newborns in the Atlantic Ocean, which is about 12 degrees centigrade or 50 degrees fahrenheit.
  • Foster was diving in the intertidal zone at the age of three.
  • His mother would spend a lot of time in the water while pregnant.
  • Tim Ferriss was introduced to Craig Foster's work by Boyd Varty, author of "The Lion Tracker's Guide to Life," and Alex, a master tracker from South Africa.

Making The Great Dance. (00:06:23)

  • Craig Foster and his brother lived on remote islands, living wild for months.
  • They returned to South Africa fascinated by the San and master trackers from the Kalahari.
  • They embarked on a mission to film the last master trackers who could run down animals without weapons in extreme heat.
  • The filming was challenging, and they lost a lot of weight.
  • They eventually managed to film the sacred hunt by running and met extraordinary trackers who became mentors.
  • The experience immersed them in a wild existence, making them feel like they had traveled back in time.
  • Foster realized how far outside of nature he was compared to the trackers, which sparked a desire to get closer to nature.
  • Foster's brother died in a car accident, which devastated him.
  • He found solace in the ocean and started diving every day.
  • He discovered a magical kelp forest and began observing and filming the octopus.
  • The octopus became his teacher, and he learned about its intelligence, curiosity, and playfulness.
  • Foster realized that the octopus was a symbol of the wildness that still exists in the world.
  • He made the documentary "My Octopus Teacher" to share his experience and inspire others to connect with nature.

Unnatural powers granted by natural attunement. (00:08:32)

  • The San Bush Hunters use a unique hunting technique called persistence hunting, which involves tracking and chasing an animal until it overheats and can be caught. This method is only possible in hot climates like the Kalahari Desert.
  • Both the San Bush Hunters and Polynesian navigators have a deep connection to nature and an understanding of how to use their bodies and the environment to their advantage.
  • Polynesian navigators have a separate role for navigation and other aspects of sailing, unlike Western captains who are typically responsible for both.
  • Indigenous people like the Kalahari Bushmen and Polynesians experience a primal joy and deep connection to the natural world, despite facing challenging living conditions. This phenomenon has been termed "Wilderness Rapture" by researchers.

Observing the secret lives of animals. (00:15:46)

  • Being close to areas filled with biodiversity has a positive impact on the human psyche, making people feel more relaxed and at home.
  • True wildness can be found in observing and intimately knowing even small animals like limpets, rather than just being in areas teeming with wildlife.
  • Intimacy with nature comes from detailed observation and immersion, not just physical proximity.
  • Foster searched for wildness through extreme activities like diving with crocodiles but found the closest connection to wild nature by intimately observing small animals like limpets.
  • Intimacy with nature can be achieved even in seemingly tame environments by closely observing and understanding the lives of small creatures.
  • The key to experiencing wildness is not just being surrounded by nature but developing a deep connection and understanding of the lives of animals, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.

What makes Kalahari trackers so impressive? (00:19:50)

  • Kalahari trackers can observe animals up to 1.5 kilometers away.
  • They do this by listening to the ripples of sound that small birds give off.
  • They can feel a big raptor flying from a long distance away.
  • They can pinpoint when a raptor makes a kill and know what animal is being killed by the reactions of the birds.
  • Their lineage goes back 120,000 years, making their tracking tradition longer than any other group of people on the planet.

Connecting with nature in the big city. (00:22:43)

  • By observing a single tree in New York City over the course of a year, one can learn about the various animals and insects that interact with it, as well as how the tree survives.
  • This type of observation can be done in any urban environment, even with just a small area of greenery.
  • By taking notes and observing for just half an hour each day, one can become shocked at how much they were previously missing.
  • Nature becomes an incredible teacher when one takes the time to observe it, and it reveals an invisible world that is fascinating and ever-changing.

Breath holding and cold exposure. (00:25:59)

  • Craig Foster practices breath holding and cold exposure every morning.
  • Breath holding involves deep breathing followed by holding the breath for 3-5 minutes, repeated 3-4 times.
  • Foster finds listening to podcasts, especially this one, to be a helpful distraction during breath holding.
  • Breath holding helps him relax, boosts the immune system, and aids in diving.
  • Cold exposure, through daily diving for the past 12 years, has acclimatized Foster to cold water.
  • He can comfortably stay in cold water for about an hour, but factors like sleep, stress, and overall well-being can affect his thermoregulation.
  • Cold exposure releases chemicals like dopamine and noradrenaline, which improve mood, motivation, and focus.
  • The combination of breath holding and cold exposure enhances his underwater tracking abilities by sharpening his mind and reducing cortisol levels.
  • Despite the option of using a wetsuit for longer dives, Foster prefers shorter dives to maintain the benefits of cold exposure.

Land lessons via underwater tracking. (00:29:38)

  • Craig Foster, inspired by the San people of the Kalahari, developed underwater tracking techniques after years of struggle, as there were no available resources on the subject.
  • Foster discovered that mollusks leave slime trails that collect sand particles, which can be used to track animals underwater.
  • Other indicators of animal presence include drill holes, bite marks, and shiny shells.
  • Foster's underwater tracking experiences have enhanced his desire to improve his tracking skills on land, and he now collaborates with a Xhosa master tracker to learn more.
  • Through underwater tracking, Foster has formed special relationships with various wild animals, as they are less fearful of humans in the water.
  • Foster has developed deep connections with smaller creatures in the ocean, such as sevengill sharks, which has reduced his reliance on human relationships.
  • These relationships with marine creatures have taught him valuable lessons and instilled a profound love for them, considering them his family.
  • As a result, Foster feels less dependent on human relationships on land, leading to an improved relationship with his wife and close friends.
  • Foster believes that the loss of our ancestral relationships with various species has put more pressure on human relationships.

Connecting with a Cape clawless otter. (00:35:37)

  • Craig Foster had an intimate encounter with a Cape clawless otter while diving.
  • He remained still to avoid scaring the otter, which then touched his feet and face.
  • The experience was so overwhelming that Foster shed tears and felt a connection to the animal.
  • The otter followed him into the shallows and made a high-pitched sound, possibly trying to reconnect with a tradition of humans hunting with wild otters.

Interspecies alliances. (00:39:26)

  • Coyotes and badgers have been observed hunting together, with the coyote acting as a playful initiator and the badger following behind.
  • Craig Foster's wife, Swati, encountered people in Bangladesh who still practice hunting with otters, sharing the fish they catch.
  • Interspecies cooperation can be seen in unlikely combinations, such as baboons and jackals cooperating to hunt, hornbills and dwarf mongooses working together to protect against predators, and octopus and super klipvis hunting and scavenging together.
  • Craig Foster decided to write a book to share his experiences and insights gained from his close observations of nature and his interactions with the octopus in the kelp forest.

What compelled Craig to write Amphibious Soul? (00:43:03)

  • Craig Foster wrote Amphibious Soul to share his experiences and stories with animals beyond the octopus featured in the film "My Octopus Teacher."
  • He felt a strong connection to the wild and wanted to reconcile this with his life in the tame world.
  • Foster experienced a period of difficulty after the release of "My Octopus Teacher" due to the unexpected exposure to a large audience.
  • Craig Foster describes feeling like he was living a double life, torn between his wild nature and the comforts of the tame world.
  • He emphasizes the importance of finding a balance between these two extremes, as he believes humans are inherently wild beings.
  • Foster suggests that while it's not possible to return to a fully wild existence, there are practices that can help retain a sense of wildness and achieve a more centered and calmer state.
  • He acknowledges the benefits of the tame world, such as technology and scientific advancements, but cautions against getting too drawn into it as it can disrupt his nervous system and overall well-being.

Why pristine nature comforts and inspires us. (00:46:47)

  • Spending time in pristine wilderness can have a lasting positive effect on our psyche due to our evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers.
  • Modern environments often lack biodiversity, which can create anxiety due to our survival instincts.
  • The wilderness can provide a sense of abundance and well-being, fostering a belief in sufficiency.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can be relaxed in areas with high biodiversity, as seen in indigenous groups like the Trio in Suriname.
  • The Trio people have extensive knowledge of their environment and use shotguns for hunting.
  • While there is a sense of calmness in their village, intertribal warfare was prevalent before missionary work.
  • Opinions among the San people regarding their preference for the old nomadic life or the new static life are divided, with some longing for the past and others appreciating the present.

Is ancestral memory real? (00:54:38)

  • Tim Ferriss shares his experience of feeling ancestral knowledge when butchering an animal for the first time.
  • He also mentions experiencing a density of consciousness in the jungle that has a distinct impact on his inner experience.
  • Tim asks Craig Foster if he has similar experiences and to what extent they might be explained by ancestral memory or other factors.
  • Craig Foster agrees with Tim Ferriss and says that much of what they are discussing is mysterious because they are programmed to see the world through the window of science.
  • He believes that when one immerses themselves in nature, there is a remembering that occurs.
  • Foster explains that his eyes and brain take in an enormous number of things, some of which he can identify consciously and some of which are processed by the unconscious mind.
  • When he is looking for something, he relaxes and lets his unconscious mind, which is connected to deep ancestry, come up to the surface.
  • He gives an example of how he found heart urchins after three years of searching by letting his unconscious mind guide him.

Nature as a mirror. (00:59:11)

  • Foster believes that nature can act as a mirror, reflecting our inner states and experiences.
  • He gives the example of seeing more of a certain animal when we are focused on it, not just because of attention bias but because the ecosystem seems to mysteriously mirror our psyche.
  • This mirroring effect is especially noticeable when we are attentive, caring, and focused on the natural world.
  • Foster has observed incredible animal behaviors that have never been recorded before when he is deeply focused on a particular animal and desperate to learn from it.
  • He believes that there is an extraordinary relationship between humans and the natural world, and that this mirroring process is especially strong in areas of high biodiversity.
  • When Foster has been in dark and difficult spaces, he has seen tough and difficult things reflected back at him in nature.

The pros and cons of discovering new species. (01:03:07)

  • Tim Ferriss draws a parallel between field biologists and coaches and athletes, suggesting that both groups often make discoveries that may initially seem ridiculous but later prove to be valid.
  • Craig Foster mentions that he and his colleague, Charles Griffiths, have discovered numerous new shrimp species but sometimes avoid examining them closely due to the significant effort required to describe and name them.
  • Foster highlights the challenge of naming new species, noting that the process is complex and time-consuming.
  • Tim Ferriss cites the example of Heteromysis fosteri, a shrimp named after Craig Foster, and explains the convention of appending the discoverer's last name to the scientific name of a newly identified species.
  • Craig Foster introduces the concept of "song catching," a practice he learned from the indigenous KhoeSan people of Southern Africa.

Song catching. (01:05:50)

  • Inspired by Jon Young's concept of "song catching," Craig Foster and his team aimed to capture the essence of the kelp forest through music.
  • Despite initial challenges, they received support from the Yo-Yo Ma Foundation and Foster's nonprofit organization, the Sea Change Project.
  • Instead of composing a traditional song, they discovered and utilized various underwater instruments, including a whale's ear bone, that produced remarkable sounds when played in the water.
  • Foster and his team collaborated with talented musicians, such as Xhosa singer Zolani Mahola and percussionist Ronan Skillen, to create a unique performance for Yo-Yo Ma.
  • During the performance, Zolani caught songs from the kelp forest during her first dive, and the team used kelp stipes to make an octopus drum and kelp tubes as musical instruments.
  • The musicians were thrilled and inspired by the unprecedented sounds they created.
  • The collaboration resulted in a magical performance for Yo-Yo Ma and raised awareness and support for their NGO and conservation efforts.

The meaning of “home.” (01:12:48)

  • Craig Foster lost his home due to an electrical fire.
  • He realized that the ocean and the planet are his true home.
  • The health of the environment is essential for his well-being.
  • He is rebuilding his house but considers the wildness of nature as his deep home.
  • Craig Foster, his son, and his son's friend were in the house during the fire.
  • His wife was in India at the time.
  • They escaped the burning house with minor injuries.
  • A fire scientist stated that if a fire starts in a bed or similar material, it becomes difficult to extinguish within 30 seconds.

Parenting lessons. (01:15:48)

  • Craig Foster believes that spending quality time with children in nature is crucial for instilling a love for the environment.
  • He emphasizes the importance of genuine love and attention from caregivers, as experienced through his great-grandmother and grandmother's focus on his childhood stories.
  • Foster highlights the significance of unconditional love and care, which made him feel deeply loved and valued as a child.
  • His grandparents instilled in him a love for nature and the wild, encouraging him to explore the natural world around him and pursue his interests in marine life.
  • With their support, Foster became a successful filmmaker and conservationist.

The psychic cost of sudden fame. (01:20:52)

  • Craig Foster's sudden global fame after the success of "My Octopus Teacher" on Netflix, reaching over 100 million homes, took a toll on his mental and physical health, causing severe sleep deprivation and nervous system disruption.
  • To recover, Foster turned to nature, using his knowledge of the wild to rebuild his nervous system through cold exposure, open spaces, and interactions with animals.
  • Despite the challenges, Foster found solace in the positive impact the film had on people's lives, as seen in heartfelt letters from viewers worldwide.
  • Foster overcame his insomnia by focusing on nature, tracking, breathing exercises, and drawing on his experiences with Indigenous people.
  • While acknowledging the overwhelming and stressful aspects of sudden fame, Foster expresses gratitude for the opportunities it has brought, including connecting with remarkable individuals and having a platform to share his work.
  • The book aims to guide readers in finding solace and reconnecting with nature in a demanding and overwhelming world.

For whom was Amphibious Soul written? (01:29:14)

  • The book is for people who want to have a deeper relationship with the natural world and the universe.
  • It is also for people who want to learn more about themselves and their ancestors.
  • Readers do not need to have an affinity with water, but there are examples of how to deal with cold, water, tracking animals, and acknowledging ancestors.

How should people think about the book? (01:29:14)

  • Readers should think of the book as a way to start learning the oldest language on Earth and observing the wild world around them.
  • It can be transformative and help people look at the wild world in a different way.

Sea Change Project. (01:31:32)

  • Craig Foster is excited about the book "Sea Change Project" because it aligns with his current interests.
  • The book is about ocean conservation and biodiversity.
  • Foster's non-profit organization, Sea Change Project, has been working for 10 years to protect the Great African Seaforest, a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa.
  • The organization has helped to raise awareness of the kelp forest and its importance as a biodiversity hotspot.
  • Foster believes that biodiversity is not getting enough attention in the fight against climate change.
  • Biodiversity is the immune system of the planet and its collapse would have devastating consequences for humanity.

The short-sightedness of current climate policy. (01:34:17)

  • Businesses and governments should prioritize regenerating the environment as it is the foundation of all investments and enterprises.
  • Words and labels have a significant impact on shaping narratives and influencing behaviors, beliefs, and policies.
  • Short-term incentives for CEOs and policymakers can hinder long-term thinking and sustainable practices.
  • Storytelling, using compelling narratives and charismatic species, can engage people and promote long-term goals like conservation.
  • Craig Foster suggests starting with small, accessible actions to engage people with nature, rather than overwhelming them with extensive commitments.
  • Foster highlights the controversial nature of wolves in the United States and the challenges in discussing them due to politicization.
  • Foster recommends the book "Of Wolves and Men" by Barry Lopez as an apolitical and beautifully written work that can draw people in and move them in a way that lecturing cannot.

Changing entrenched minds. (01:40:47)

  • Finding common ground and bipartisan support is essential for successful conservation efforts.
  • Approaching sensitive topics with respect and avoiding accusatory language can help build support for conservation initiatives.
  • Hunting, when done responsibly and ethically, can provide an opportunity to connect with individuals who may otherwise have opposing views.
  • Reconnecting with nature can improve mental health and foster a sense of kinship with the environment, leading to more sustainable decision-making.
  • Online activism may not be as effective as direct action, and there is common ground to be found with individuals from different political backgrounds.
  • To avoid conflict, it's important to choose words carefully and avoid language that can incite immediate negative reactions.
  • When discussing controversial topics, such as climate change, it's helpful to set aside the question of human responsibility and focus on practical steps that can be taken to address the issue.
  • Effective communication involves finding alternative language that conveys thoughts without triggering emotional responses and potential conflict.
  • Human nature is contradictory, and accepting this can help foster collaboration and understanding rather than division.

A camera-stealing octopus. (01:52:55)

  • Craig Foster had a unique experience with an octopus that stole his camera while he was studying sea hares.
  • The octopus grabbed the camera and dragged it to its den.
  • Foster waited patiently, and the octopus eventually returned the camera.
  • The experience gave Foster a new perspective on the world, as he saw it through the octopus's eyes.
  • Foster believes that this experience taught him that humans are part of the wild world and that we should remember our connection to nature.
  • Foster emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the wild world and learning from it.
  • He believes that humans should strive to be more like the octopus, which is calm and equanimous, rather than getting fired up and sending emails they shouldn't.
  • Foster suggests that humans should consider octopuses as number one and homo sapiens as 1,001, as a reminder that we are part of the wild world.

Hope for a shift in human perspective. (01:56:09)

  • Humans often feel separate from nature due to urban environments and technology use.
  • This separation is a result of language and thinking patterns that imply nature is something apart from us.
  • In reality, nature is an extension of us and essential to our well-being.
  • The book is a guide to reintegrating with nature and finding a sense of completeness.
  • Craig Foster agrees with Tim Ferriss's description of the book's message.
  • He acknowledges that he doesn't always feel connected to nature but has experienced moments of deep connection.
  • These moments are transformative and invigorating, and he tries to maintain a sense of gratitude for them.
  • He believes that everyone has access to these experiences but must make an effort to connect with nature.

Parting thoughts. (01:59:38)

  • Craig Foster expresses gratitude to Tim Ferriss for his positive impact on people's lives through his podcast.
  • Foster highlights the significance of connecting with and protecting nature, emphasizing that humans are fragile and should be grateful for the planet that sustains us.
  • Foster invites Tim Ferriss to experience the kelp forests firsthand by diving together.
  • Foster encourages viewers to find and appreciate nature even in ordinary places, suggesting small steps like observing wildlife and practicing kindness towards others and themselves to foster a deeper connection with the environment.

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