PBS NATURE’s film “Octopus: Making Contact” airs on Wednesday, October 2. The documentary, from director Anna Fitch, examines a number of aspects of the octopus, including its singular evolution: unlike vertebrates, the sea creature has evolved with its esophagus in its brain. “Octopus: Making Contact” also visits Octopolis, in a bay off of Australia’s Sydney Harbor, where normally solitary octopuses live in a colony. (Octopi, it’s explained during a PBS Q&A session for the program, is a Latin affectation adopted by some scientists in the early twentieth century; it’s not necessarily the right word for more than one octopus.)
Mostly, though, “Octopus: Making Contact” examines what happens when an octopus named Heidi, a day octopus (scientific name: Octopus cyanea) spends a year in a giant tank installed in the living room of Dr. David Scheel, a professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and his adolescent daughter Laurel.
Fitch gets some remarkable imagery, including shots where neither the tank nor the water are visible and Heidi appears to be floating midair in the home. As Heidi grows from a fist-sized creature to her full adult size, she displays personality and intelligence, along with what looks very much like a bond of affection with Laurel Scheel. Heidi even watches television; the Scheels say she prefers sitcoms, because of the bright onscreen colors, moving to be closer to the living room’s TV.
At the end of the year, following the making of “Octopus: Making Contact,” Heidi had to be re-homed to more stable marine facility, due to the fact that the tank was beginning to cause the living room floor to collapse beneath it. The Scheels visited Heidi in her new home, where she reacted as though she recognized them, especially Laurel, by moving to the front of her tank. The octopus has since passed away from natural causes.
Dr. Scheel, a scientist who trained as a behavioral ecologist, is keenly interested in exploring nonhuman cognition, especially in octopuses. As he explains, having an octopus in the living room was a unique way to do this. He, Laurel Scheel and filmmaker Fitch sit down together to discuss their experience with Heidi.
ASSIGNMENT X: What was the timeframe between thinking it would be a good idea to study an octopus in your living room, and having an octopus in your living room?
DAVID SCHEEL: It was between one and two years, I think. There was a long period of sort of scheming and planning, and then [producer] David Allen [who had worked with Fitch on previous documentaries] had to make sure the project was a go from his end. And then once that was reached, there was a long period of trying to design the aquarium to balance the needs of the octopus with the needs of the film. So it was two different things, biology and photography, and we had to make sure they were both well-satisfied. And then there was a period of installation and getting ready, and then eventually the octopus.
AX: Has anybody else done something like this? Is there a base line for knowing if Heidi reacted to you differently than another octopus reacted to other people?
DAVID SCHEEL: There’s a hobbyist community, and some members of the aquarium hobbyist community do occasionally keep octopuses. There are two books, I think, that have been written that are guides to keeping an octopus in your house. So that’s been done, and those hobbyists will have their own stories about what it’s like to live with an octopus. But in terms of the question of the octopus sort of recognizing us, there’s one study that looks specifically at whether under experimental conditions, an octopus will recognize, can recognize a human, and the answer that they found was, yes, they can learn to recognize different people who react to them differently.
AX: What was the difference in reaction between the two of you?
LAUREL SCHEEL: When I was interacting with Heidi, I was much more willing to let her convince me to do things for her. One of the examples is, we were trying to train her to open a jar [that had food in it], and so, really early on, you have to put the lid on the jar really lightly. And then it was really hard to convince her to come over to the jar. What I would do was, I would put my hand over near where the jar is. So she’d come over sometimes, and she would play with the jar, but sometimes the lid wouldn’t come off, or she couldn’t quite figure it out, so I’d tap on the top of the jar. And sometimes it would come off, and so then she would immediately get the reward, and so she was able to make it so she had trained me to open the jar for her, so that she could get food. And so I was a lot more willing to do that stuff, and I would play with her for a really long time, where I’d just have my arm in the tank and she could just do whatever. Whereas my dad would do a lot more of the studying-type things, and it was a lot more training. He would obviously play with Heidi as well, but it wasn’t quite as focused on that.
DAVID SCHEEL: Yeah. A lot of your playtime with Heidi was unstructured, whereas a lot of mine, I put a red ball, like a dog chew toy, on a string, and trained her to attack that. And so then that became a way to encourage her to move to a different part of the tank, or to get interested in something that she might initially be a little skeptical of, by having this sort of lure that she knew was associated with good things. And so we had that different feel to how we interacted with her, and she grew to sort of expect that. I think she would hold onto you [Laurel Scheel] longer, because your time was so unstructured. And I was usually like, “Okay, I’ve got to go,” and she kind of knew that.
LAUREL SCHEEL: Yeah. And you were a little bit more forceful when you would …
DAVID SCHEEL: Disengage [laughs].
LAUREL SCHEEL: Disengage, yes. I was a lot more lenient [about letting] her hold onto me for really long periods of time, and I would try and get her to let go, but it wasn’t really heartfelt, because I wanted to be there just as much as she wanted me there [laughs].
AX: How do you get an octopus to disengage without hurting it?
DAVID SCHEEL: Very gently. One sucker at a time.
ANNA FITCH: And Laurel taught us a technique, too, which was petting the back of its tentacle, so it’s grabbing onto you, and you kind of lose in a tug of war, but doing that would sometimes just cause it to recoil, because it’s like, “Oh, something is touching me, I don’t …”
AX: “It’s the wrong side of my tentacle, and I don’t have control.”
ANNA FITCH: Yes.
AX: How did you get that shot that PBS is using for publicity, where it looks like the octopus is suspended in midair in the living room?
DAVID SCHEEL: She could fly [laughs].
ANNA FITCH: [laughs] Yeah, we asked really nicely. It was a really big tank, and so sometimes there would be an opportunity, where she had placed herself, where we framed it correctly, and lit it correctly, you just couldn’t see the tank at all. And that just would happen kind of fortuitously. First we noticed the shadows on the wall, and thought that was really interesting. Fish [in Heidi’s tank appeared to be] swimming through the living room, and then we realized, if we framed it in a certain way, you can just create this world where the air was water and the water was air, and they just floated through it in a really magical way.
AX: What was the purpose of the fish in octopus tank? Was that so she could eat them, or was that so she’d have something to look at and go, “Okay, there’s movement”?
DAVID SCHEEL: Well, the fish served all of those purposes. We didn’t intend for them to be snacks, but some of them were. It was always interesting to get up in the morning and count the survivors, trying to figure out, “Do we need to feed her a little bit more?” At one point, she transitioned from needing a little bit of food a day to needing some real food every day. We cottoned onto that when a couple of fish disappeared. It was like, “Oh, maybe we’re not feeding her enough anymore.” And sure enough, when you figure out how big she is, compared to when she came in, you see she’s growing.
LAUREL SCHEEL: There was also the cleaning crew, as it were, which is all the snails. I think we went through four sets of cleaning crews, which were hermit crabs and snails. There were always a couple of big snails that were initially brought in, and they were always the first to go. Those were the first things that she would snack on. And then you’d wake up in the morning, and you’d count big snails. It’s like, “Oh, one’s gone.” The fish were there as more visual color, as well as something that was interacting within the space as well. But to me, they were also pets, so I named all of them. I was fine with them being eaten, because I knew that that was going to happen. If they were [still] there, I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.”
DAVID SCHEEL: I think part of the thing with the fish is, they weren’t Laurel’s pets, they were Heidi’s pets. I say that half-jokingly, but one of the reasons to have something like that in an octopus tank is because they [octopuses] get bored, and they want things to look at. And so Heidi would often sit on the pane of the tank closest to our picture living room window, and watch cars and things go by on the street. But she would also sit in the back, where she had some rocks and a den, farthest from the window, but the fish would come and interact with her. And the fish liked to be near her, even though she was kind of dangerous [to them]. And she was at once annoyed by and entertained by the fish. And so beyond just the aesthetics, that was the reason to have some fish in the tank.
LAUREL SCHEEL: It was a more realistic ecosystem.
DAVID SCHEEL: It’s a way to enrich the animal’s life, so there’s this whole field of enrichment for captive animals, to make sure that they have enough stimulation for psychological well-being. But it’s also a way to enrich the environment for the people seeing the captive setting, and make it more visually interesting, more representative of what it represents in the wild, and truer to life.
AX: Besides getting the shots of Heidi apparently floating, and the shadows, were there other kinds of things that you needed from the octopus or from the Scheels to make your film?
ANNA FITCH: There were the things that we thought Heidi may be able to do, based on what other octopuses had done, and so we would just take those classic experiments one step further. Like octopuses have been seen opening jars, and we know that we’re able to do that, so then what happens if you put a box in a box in a box in a box, and then how could she learn that? So a lot of it was the ideas that we would come up with together, based on what they’d done before, based on Heidi’s behavior, and then, often things would happen when we weren’t there [that were caught on unmanned GoPro cameras], and we would come and then try to film it happening again, and of course, that’s always a challenge. Just because it happened once doesn’t going to mean that it’s going to happen again, but we did, with a fair amount of persistence, manage to get those shots, and to have fun with them, and just figure out how to put a GoPro in the bottom of the jar. We did a lot with GoPros to try to get different angles on Heidi’s experience, and a lot of it just came out of what she was doing when we weren’t there, and then figuring out how to capture it when we were.
AX: Did you have cameras rolling when you weren’t there, and it was just a problem that she did it at the wrong angle for the shot, or did you actually have to be there to photograph the behavior?
ANNA FITCH: For the most part, we had to be there.
DAVID SCHEEL: Yeah. One of the things that makes the film so spectacular is, it’s so sumptuously lit and photographed. I think we did quite a bit of amateur-hour filming of behavior when the team wasn’t there, but honestly, it doesn’t hold up to the quality of the stuff they got when they were there, because they had the time and the perspective and the experience and the skill to put it all together. So even though I had opportunities to do some filming when the film crew wasn’t there, really, that stuff that was captured then didn’t tell the story as well, and wasn’t as lavishly beautiful as the material that [cinematographer] Ernie Kovacs and you [Fitch] got when you had the full team there.
AX: In the wild, obviously, octopuses have to face a lot of predators. Did you ever put a pretend predator in or near the tank to make that more realistic, or would that have been too unnerving for her?
DAVID SCHEEL: What about watching BLUE PLANET?
LAUREL SCHEEL: Oh, yeah. So we didn’t ever introducing anything that was like a fake predator into the tank, but in some of the stuff that’s shown in the film, there are the clips from BLUE PLANET, and some of those were predatory animals to octopuses. And she would react to them, but it wasn’t like an extreme reaction. She was aware that they were onscreen swimming by, but it wasn’t a run and hide sort of situation, it was, “I see it, I know that it’s there, I am prepared if I need to …”
DAVID SCHEEL: In the film, [we see Octopolis], the site in Australia where there are a lot of octopuses that are actually [near each other]. That’s a wild site in a natural habitat, and there are a lot of predators out there. What my science team and I did was, we left GoPro cameras on the bottom, and we left. So the camera is filming just the wild interactions of the animals. It’s very interesting to see how the octopuses respond to predators. You would think that they’d run and hide. But generally, what happens is, a predator will cruise through the field of view, across the site. And if it’s any of these predators that just swim these great big arcs, they come and they go. The octopuses are aware of them. You can see them kind of go [makes an observant, wary face]. And then the minute it’s gone, they barely interrupt their breathing or anything. They barely interrupt their interactions. But if it’s a sit and wait kind of predator, the kind of predator that comes down, sits down, and then waits until prey comes close and then grabs it, they’ll shut down for the whole day. They just all crawl into their dens and hide, and they do not budge. And so the octopuses generally in the wild react very sagely to different types of predators.
AX: Is the population of Octopolis fairly stable, or do new octopuses ever come in?
DAVID SCHEEL: Well, they don’t live all that long. The species that we’re working with there is Octopus tetricus, the gloomy octopus. I’ve never kept one, so I don’t know what their lifetime in captivity is, but they’re likely to have a planktonic phase, and then about a year on the substrata. And so we see these seasonal peaks in the summer of the population at Octopolis, and then it drops off in the winter. We think that has to do with their annual life cycle. But it seems that each peak is approximately the same size, so it’s been continually occupied for some years, and it seems to be continuing.
AX: Are those mostly the generations of the octopuses who live there?
DAVID SCHEEL: We don’t have any way yet to specifically recognize each individual on sight.
AX: You can’t safely tag them for identification?
DAVID SCHEEL: We’ve taken the attitude that we shouldn’t interfere with the site, and so we put cameras down and we swim away. We don’t capture the animals, we don’t handle the animals, we’ve never done any physical sampling. That may change in the future, but right now, we’re strictly observational.
This interview was conducted during PBS’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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