The Ethics of "My Octopus Teacher" [Possible Spoilers]

Yay or nay: OK to befriend wild animals?

The Oscar-nominated documentary film My Octopus Teacher was a wonderful film to watch but I do wonder about the ethics. First, I am posting here (not CS) because I see this as a debate about wildlife, and could pose the same question if the movie had never been made. We could ask the same question about Dian Fossey’s work with wild gorillas.

An underwater photographer develops a year-long relationship with an octopus, filming the whole thing, because he just films everything. Afterwards the idea occurs to him to make a movie from that footage, and directors come in to interview him for narration and select and edit the footage. Result: Oscar material.

He initially sees this octopus and returns to visit it every day. Eventually the octopus comes to trust him. He reaches out, and one of eight arms reaches back to meet him and wrap around his hand.

I am no wildlife expert but every time I visit a national park they tell you if a wild animal is reacting to you, you’re too close.

Was it OK for this guy to break all the rules just because he was very comfortable in this environment? Or is it really not a rule at all? There were some lines he didn’t cross, but he definitely was much more than a detached observer of nature.

I think main point of “don’t interact with wildlife” is that you could be teaching them habits that will lead to trouble later. Predators getting too comfortable around humans leads to death. Herbivores may stop foraging well if they get used to handouts from humans. They also will be less likely to run from hunters.

So my question would be: is he going to get the octopus into any bad habits with his interaction?

He was in the ocean right? What rules are we talking about? We do have a lot of rules for limiting the number of delicious wild animals in the ocean that can be killed each year. Haven’t heard of such a rule for playing with octopi.

According to the U.S. National Park Service, “In general, if animals react to your presence you are too close.”

Does that rule apply to people who are not visitors in US national parks too? :smile:

It’s a valid question. Just because there’s no legal authority telling you not to do something, doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to be doing it.

Does playing with an octopus expose it to risks? Can the octopus consent to taking those risks? Is it okay to expose the octopus to risks with (or without) its consent?

My gut reaction would be “yes” to those questions. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

I expect that kelp forest near Simons Town isnt a Ocean sanctuary so no “rules”. More “guidelines”.

National parks and other areas have regulations.

Meh, I can’t get too upset about what this person did. One person be friending one octopus in what appears to be a very respectful way and using it to promote an ecological awareness isn’t going to cause a huge problem. I haven’t watched the documentary so I could be wrong but he appears to approach his subject on her own terms doesn’t attempt to attract her with food and doesn’t seem to have fundamentally changed the octopus’ behavior. It isn’t like Charlie Vandergaw., more like Jane Goodall.

The rule you posted is a good guidline because 99% of the time, the person actively interacting with the wildlife is doing it in a bad way.

The only concern would be a whole bunch of idiots trying to emulate the film maker by jumping into the water by chasing down and molesting octopuses in hopes of making friends.

Aside: did anyone else expect this thread to be about a certain conservative poster on the straight dope when the opened it?

This is an interesting question. At what point can an animal be considered ‘smart’ enough for knowledgeable consent? If one decides it IS unethical to interact with an octopus in its own environment, a species considered highly intelligent, what about interacting with dolphins in their own environment?

The rules for national parks are written to deal with situations where a large number of wild animals are regularly coming in contact with a large number of humans. I would not interpret them as universal rules about how to interact with any wild animal in any environment. For example, there’s no particular danger that this octopus, having become used to the presence of humans, will start breaking into cars in the parking lot looking for food.

There’s a quote I read somewhere: “The problem with developing a bear-proof garbage can is that there’s considerable overlap between the smartest bears, and the dumbest tourists.” National park rules are written with that in mind. It’s not that a human can never interact with a wild animal in a way that’s safe for both of them - it’s just a lot easier when dealing with the public to just say, “Stay the fuck away from the animals,” than to try to delineate exactly what sort of interactions are okay with which kinds of animals.

I think we’re seeing that is not a universally applied rule. Not even globally applied.

Do you think there should be such a rule about contact with wild animals? Personally, I don’t think that’s at all practical, and in general not a good idea to consider all human/wild-animal interactions as undesirable.

If I had to come up with a general rule, I’d draw the line at interactions with a wild animal that put them at higher risk from predators or otherwise compromise their chance of survival.

So habituating this octopus to humans in general wasn’t really a risk - it’s not a popular dive spot and the humans in this area aren’t predators of octopuses. But I don’t feel quite so confident that the film maker’s actions didn’t put the octopus at risk from other predators.* Was the octopus more likely to emerge from hiding spots because her “friend” was there? I don’t know the answer to that.

*movie spoiler: over the course of filming, the octopus was attacked twice by sharks, once losing an arm and the second time fatally when she was weak after giving birth. I think those incidents were unrelated to the human interaction, but who knows. Sharks eat octopuses without humans around too.

Not to mention that the octopus in question- E’s kicked the bucket, 'e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!

Added spoiler blur -raven

Well, really, that is the crux of the question under debate. I cited the National Park text not as some sort of universal rule–it’s not even an actual rule in the National Parks–but rather as a general philosophy that when you are in a wilderness area, you should leave it exactly as you found it, even underwater wilderness. The “Leave No Trace” Principles

Probably the underlying philosophical question is whether humans are a part of nature, or separate from it. Wild animals interact with each other. Should we or should we not interact with them ourselves?

If the Octopus was an adult when he started interacting with it, and he studied it for a year, it was probably near the end of its life since Octopuses only live two or three years.

So it’s not like he’s taming an animal that has to survive for decades more.

This was filmed in South Africa, not the United States. South Africa does have some MPA’s (Marine Protected Areas), but I do not believe any filming happened in a MPA.

So any reference to rules in parks has no relevance whatsoever.

I’m pretty sure he was allowed to touch a mollusc in the ocean. In fact with the proper fishing license, he would have been allowed to capture, kill and eat it. 35,000 tons of this species of octopus are landed each year in worldwide fisheries.

I enjoyed this film very much. It did not pretend to be a dispassionate nature documentary. It examined a connection between two very different animals - man and octopus, and did a good job walking the fine line. There were factual parts, and thoughtful parts. It did not devolve into a cutesy story line.

In reference to your spoiler:

This species of Octopus generally dies shortly after the eggs hatch. Their lifespan is one to two years (max). After the eggs hatch, they drift on the current, and there is no “tending”, and the octopus then dies. The sharks in the movie did not kill it; They were feeding on the soon to be dead octopus that had left shelter.
This is how it works in the big blue ocean.

I’ll just make this point one more time. It is not a rule. It is an expression of a philosophy about humans’ role in a wilderness area.

In general, I don’t have a problem with interacting with wild animals if they aren’t being harmed or such interactions don’t result in harm to people. And there will be cases where wild animals must be killed just to stop them form harming people. I don’t object to fish being caught for seafood although I do want it to be done more responsibly even if my favorite foods will cost more. I do object to people keeping lions and tigers and chimps and plenty of other animals in captivity when they can’t live in a proper environment for their well being. It’s a complex subject with a lot to consider.

I don’t know exactly where this was filmed, but it is described as “near Simon’s Town” which means that it is actually very likely to have been filmed in the Table Mountain National Park MPA (light blue area on the map). That being said, I can’t find much in the regulations of said MPA, or in the governing legislation, that would prohibit the activity described (provided that he had a permit for scuba diving). The nearest I can find is that it is illegal to, “in any manner which results in an adverse effect on the marine environment, disturb, alter or destroy the natural environment,” which seems a bit of a stretch.