Here’s why emotional ecology is important, the team behind My Octopus Teacher believes

Business Insider SA
Faine Loubser
  • My Octopus Teacher grabbed the ‘Best Documentary’ prize at the Academy Awards.
  • It tells the story of how Craig Foster, a co-founder of Sea Change Project, formed a “bond” with an octopus.
  • Central to the documentary is the concept of ‘emotional ecology’  - the belief that people are happier when they’re connected to their natural environments.
  • For more stories, go to 

Emotional ecology is key to raising awareness about South Africa’s marine life, and our interaction with the wild, according to the Academy Award-winning team behind Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher

Business Insider spoke to the Sea Change Project, an NPO made up of maritime scientists, filmmakers, and journalists, about the documentary, why we should care about the Great African Sea Forest, and why we’re healthier – physically and mentally – when we take care of our natural environment. 

Here’s what they had to say:

About the documentary...

My Octopus Teacher is set on the Cape Peninsula coast and tells the story of how Craig Foster, a co-founder of Sea Change Project decided to dive for 365 days within the the kelp forests, after suffering severe burnout.

On one of his dives he encountered an octopus and formed a “bond” with the creature.

The documentary shows a long-view of the natural behaviour of octopuses. Foster visits the creature daily, giving viewers a glimpse into her behaviour and the two form a “cross-species” bond.

... and why emotional ecology is central to the feature's philosophy.

Emotional ecology, as a philosophy of the film, believes we’re healthier – physically and mentally – when we take care of our natural environment.

 "I feel the greatest threat to our species and planet is the cooling of the human heart towards nature. We have to find ways to reunite with the wild by starting a deep, meaningful and loving kinship with wild places and their living plants and animals. We need a change of heart," says Foster.

The tricky balance between socioeconomic development by industrialisation and stress on the natural environment is something Foster is keenly aware of.

"We need to listen to our finest scientists and find ways to leave vast stretches of the ocean alone. Nature must be given time and space to regenerate herself. But, we need to do this in a sensitive way that takes into account all parts of human society, especially the many people whose livelihoods are dependent on the ocean,” he believes.

Dr Jannes Landschoff, scientific advisor for the film, adds that the team hopes "for a society that embraces conservation and nature with sensitivity … We hope the film raises awareness of how remarkable the Great African Sea Forest is and, by shedding light on the life of one of its remarkable inhabitants, why it’s important to protect it".

Tom Foster

Kelp forests are the second most vulnerable marine ecosystem to climate change - here's how we are endangering this natural resource

Landschoff warns that hobbies such as fishing and spearfishing, when done unsustainably by large numbers of people, will seriously deplete fish numbers. "We should have an open curiosity toward our natural environments, but we should interact with it responsibly. Particularly, in False Bay, large reef fish are basically fished out. People – especially those who love spending time in nature – should be aware of the risks we may pose to the ecosystem," he says.

"The tension between urbanisation and conservation is very real. Climate change, pollution, overfishing, and poaching pose existential threats to our underwater ecosystems."

Kelp forests are the second most vulnerable marine ecosystem to climate change and can only grow in shallow inshore waters – areas most at risk from human pressure.

What is Sea Change?

Sea Change is an NPO that has run numerous, research projects aimed at furthering scientific understanding of this marine system.

Their work has led to the discovery of three new shrimp species in False Bay. The team believes that a more informed, emotionally invested, public will be more likely to preserve our marine environments.

Landschoff and the team are in the process of developing a Sea Change Science Institute and Marine Laboratory. Such an institute will produce marine biology research focussed on the marine diversity and ecology of the Great African Sea Forest. They hope to gain and transfer knowledge on an even deeper basis, and also to enable, train, and mentor the next generation of marine biology scientists.

... and how they believe we can protect our marine treasures.

One of the main ways is by expanding the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Currently, only 5% of South Africa’s coastline is designated as an MPA. South Africa has 41 MPAs, with the Great African Sea Forest falling within the Table Mountain National Park MPA. The hope is that, with enough public support, up to 30% of the coastline and ocean could be designated as MPAs by 2030.

The threat of offshore oil and gas drilling off the southern Cape Coast, and mining on at least ten West Coast sites concerns them. With MPA status, similar areas would be protected in future against exploitation.

“Our modern lives have created a chasm between us and our natural environment. It is important to sometimes step back, and ask if our actions are causing damage to others and the natural world. I hope … My Octopus Teacher can make people appreciate our natural world more,” says Landschoff.

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