One magnificent mollusk

Coiled near its rocky den, the octopus slowly unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship, of holding hands for the first time. Could this be love?

“That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his remarkable documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” A viral smash, the Netflix film has been shortlisted for the best documentary Academy Award. Really, it deserves a special accolade, say, Best Buddy Picture Between Man and Mollusk. The movie is something else: devastating octo-poetry. 

A simple story about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa, the film depicts the burly, soft-spoken Foster as a dedicated student of the ocean who is truly moved by the relationship he forges over a year with the sea animal that remains unnamed. (I suggest Octavia.)

Part of his lesson is noticing the striking similarities between us and these “alien” creatures, the way connection, interspecies or not, is essential and a well of bracing contentment. “It does give you this strange level of octopus joy,” notes Foster, saying words that have likely never been uttered before.

As a pupil, Foster is a keen observer, learning by watching his silent friend do what she does: hunt, hide, jet, crawl, swim and, sometimes, walk on two legs on the ocean floor. That trippy spectacle, both funny and boggling, is one of many scene-stealers.

She’s a gelatinous chameleon, enacting stunning physical transformations with her bulbous head, serpentine legs and polka-dot suckers to blend seamlessly into the Day-Glo surroundings. Her effortless shape-shifting is part of the movie’s multi-pronged magic.

“My Octopus Teacher” reminds me of many oceany things, like the charmingly odd adopt an octopus campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, where for a $55 donation you get a plush stuffed octopus, a photo, an adoption certificate and other tentacular goodies. It never occurred to me that octopi were endangered, but WWF says they’re “vulnerable to toxins and pollution,” yet doesn’t that cover just about everything? (Please send me $55. I am endangered. My plush doll is amazing.) 

As much as I love watching the delightful octopus in the movie, I love even more putting octopus in my mouth. Almost unavoidable on midscale restaurant menus — perhaps another reason they’re endangered — grilled octopus is hot stuff, up there with bone marrow and short ribs. Both chewy and silky, the meat has a mild sea-foody flavor complemented by a good fiery sear. Here’s a spectacular piece I scarfed in Barcelona:

I don’t want to eat the movie’s affable octopus. She’s a darling — adorably clever, wily and pretty, much like the picture itself, which is also fairly wrenching (brace for some drama). 

It’s an elemental tale rife with homey pleasures: the hand holding, the snuggling, the mutual respect. The bond is inexplicable but palpable, right there on screen, like when Foster’s new BFF seems to be tailing him through the sea.

“That’s one of the most incredible feelings,” he beams, “to be followed by an octopus.”

It’s fantastic, and it almost breaks your heart.

Sun, sand and a menagerie of bashful animals

I don’t do sun and fun. Yet here I am in breezy, easy San Diego, Calif., for a shortish vacation with the extended family — mother, brother, nephew, et al. Seven of us total. 

Why do I shun the pool and the Pacific? I sure didn’t used to, particularly growing up in oceanside Santa Barbara, Calif. There I was like any splash-happy, wave-plunging kid, giddiest reverting to a primal state of fluidity, getting soaked, sandy and sun-baked.

I think I just grew out of it. By my teens, living in the temperate San Francisco Bay Area, I loathed the heat, anything over 75 degrees was excruciating. And it still is. I’m a 40s and 50s kind of guy. Fall and winter are my homies. Jeans, jacket, scarf — the ideal uniform. Shivering is my version of sweating. (Sweat is my kryptonite.) I aspire to be an Inuit.

Against my nature, but not my will, I’ve been cajoled to one of the beachiest places on the planet. Briny water everywhere. The profusion of palm trees — Christ. Boats and bikinis, flip-flops and fish, pink flesh and pervasive pastels. It’s Coronado Bay, San Diego.

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I actually sat poolside — in the shade, with shirt and sneakers firmly affixed — this afternoon and survived. I had a book (Peter Orner’s new, remarkable short stories “Maggie Brown & Others”) and the laptop (the resort, yes, resort, has spiffy wifi) and a beer and an al pastor taco, so it worked swimmingly, if you will. Then I repaired to my room for some AC time, even though the temps all week are in the mercifully mid-to-low 70s. 

I begged off the beach. The six of them headed out to sit on sand beneath yawning umbrellas and presumably tiptoe into the chilly sea. I had no business there, as much as I love sharks. But the chances of a shark sighting were as good as those of me not being bored out of my skull plopped on mushy sand under a giant parasol. (Instead, I’m writing this. I bet you wish I went to the beach.) 

When many of us think of San Diego, the mega-famous zoo (known as the world’s best) and SeaWorld spring to mind. In other words: creatures, critters, cetaceans, crustaceans. Now, those I can do. Captive animals crack my heart, but at least the respected zoo sustains “natural” habitats and breeds endangered species. And even the ethically iffy SeaWorld has banished its dubious in-park breeding and tawdry theatrical whale shows. (Shamu — rhymes with boo.)  

Today was San Diego Zoo day, and it was about as thrilling as watching a flock of pink, and a few juvenile gray, flamingos stand on one preternaturally long and spindly leg and snooze, or projectile poop, or, in the case of the gray downy youngsters, stumble and wash and act as adorable as can be. When flamingos are a highlight, well …

27845391521_03f8fb4be8_b.jpgBesides being reminded on a double-decker bus tour around the park that hippos are “the most dangerous animals in the world” (for some reason, I find that exhilarating) and that some wolves smell like seething skunk bud, mostly the day consisted of trying to locate animals in their enclosures. Craned necks and dashed hopes were major exertions. It was the land of the empty habitat. 

There’s one alpha gorilla sitting tall and proud, and there he goes, vanishing behind a rock. There’s a sole polar bear sleeping up on a hill, partially obscured. Ah, I spy a pygmy hippo — 90-percent submerged in a pond. And so on. Zoos might be the most exasperating animal experience available. Go to a mall pet shop to see more furry mammalian action. 

But the weather remained agreeable — low-70s — so things meteorologically were dreamy. And they sell beer all over the place. (Wait, $9 for a can of Corona — where are the hippos when I need them?)

I don’t want to complain. I saw frolicsome monkeys and fat pythons and some Chaplinesque penguins, not to mention a guy dressed in a ragtag rhinoceros costume posing for pictures who made legions of unsuspecting visitors uneasy.

But where, I direly wondered, were the real rhinos? And giraffes? And hyenas. And, come on, the platypuses? We spotted, nestled in thick foliage, a koala. It was like seeing a child’s stuffed animal stuck in a way-up tree. It wanted nothing to do with us, the cranky marsupial. That’s what happens when you sleep 22 hours a day.  

A leopard showed its spots — for about 34 seconds. Then there was the funky smelling wolf — a total no-show, just a nose show. The macaques — same. Empty habitats are like unfulfilled dreams, dollar bills set on fire. Enter the gift shop and suddenly the animals are fluffy, smiling, en masse, thriving. A simple magnet of a magnificent mountain lion or a whimsical t-shirt of a rhinoceros (“Save the Chubby Unicorns”) about makes it all OK.

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