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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

NatGeo’s Secrets of the Octopus: What We Can Learn From This Intelligent, Alien-Like Creature 

NatGeo’s Secrets of the Octopus: What We Can Learn From This Intelligent, Alien-Like Creature

The octopus is a fascinating creature. Did you know they have three hearts, blue blood and can squeeze through any space the size of their eyeballs? Older than the dinosaurs, the octopus is a true master of disguise that uses tools, thinks creatively, can communicate and work in harmony with other species and might even dream. The octopus is one of the most intelligent beings on our planet.

From Academy Award®-winning filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer-at-Large James Cameron, the next installment of the award-winning SECRETS OF franchise returns with SECRETS OF THE OCTOPUS. The three-part series explores their one-of-a-kind superpowers, extraordinary intelligence, and secret social lives. Narrated by award-winning actor Paul Rudd and featuring National Geographic Explorer, Wayfinder Awardee and science communicator Dr. Alex Schnell, SECRETS OF THE OCTOPUS will bring us closer than ever to these elusive creatures. 

I had the chance to speak exclusively to Dr. Alex Schnell and writer/director Adam Geiger. I wanted to know more about how they became interested in marine life and the octopus specifically, what more we might discover about the octopus, what we can do to help ocean conservation and more.

TV GOODNESS: I’m wondering if you can introduce yourselves and tell me how you became interested in marine life and specifically in the octopus.

Adam Geiger: “So I became interested in the ocean and the marine life when I was just a young kid around seven, eight years old, starting to snorkel in the waters around Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. I subsequently went on to get a degree in marine science, but also pursuing underwater photography. And that’s how I wound up meeting octopus in various locations around the world and just became fascinated with them.”

Dr. Alex Schnell: “I have a similar story. I was always intrinsically drawn to the ocean. I grew up on the beaches of Sydney, Australia and I would spend all my time in rock pools. I knew I wanted to become a marine scientist from the age of five. So I went on to study that and all the time that I spent in the ocean would bring me in contact with octopuses and every moment just really cemented the career pathway that I ended up taking.

After marine science I ended up specializing in comparative psychology where we ask questions like, ‘How did intelligence evolve? Why did it evolve and where and when?’ And the octopus is just the perfect candidate to really investigate some of these questions because it’s so different from everything else that we study to seek answers to those questions.”

TV GOODNESS: Dr. Schnell, you talk about the fact that humans seem fascinated with octopuses because they’re so alien. Can you both talk about your own fascination and what you found interesting or even surprising about making the series?

Dr. Alex Schnell: “Sure. So I guess they are so alien. You couldn’t get more physically alien to us in the way that they look and also the way that they behave. They can change color and texture of their skin in the fifth of a second. They have no bones. They can squeeze into the smallest space.

But what we’re finding with new research and the new secrets that are revealed in the series is that there’s also these points of similarities. They can problem solve. They can use tools, they can hunt collaboratively with different fish species. They form social relationships with humans.

So I think that that really removes this barrier of otherness and helps us connect to these animals. The thing that constantly fascinates me, I think it always takes my breath away, is how quickly they have the ability to trust. They’re just this squishy ball of protein with nothing to protect them, but if you spend enough time with them, they’ll let their guard down and they often want to come out and meet you.”

Adam Geiger: “I think for me, some of the earliest experiences in filming this project were approaching an octopus that was wary of something huge because most large animals on a reef or in the ocean are predators and over a period of time to get a little bit closer and looking in the eyes of the octopus and seeing a presence looking back. That was one of the most revelatory things I think for me, that it’s not just a simple biological robot.

This is an animal that’s thinking, that’s cogitating, that’s looking back at you, that’s making decisions all the time. And then even expressing those emotions on its skin or by reaching out an arm and touching you. [It’s] just remarkable how intelligent they are.”

TV GOODNESS: Dr. Schnell, did you ever expect a bond with Scarlet and what was it like to make that connection?

Dr. Alex Schnell: “I don’t think I ever have the expectation that I’m going to bond. I feel privileged just to be able to watch and observe and have the animal trust me enough to behave naturally in front of me. So it’s always such a bonus to have an individual want to interact with you.

Like I said before, my breath is always taken away by how quickly they often reach out an arm to give you that first handshake. And I think it still baffles me as a scientist as to why they would do this, but I think it’s because they’re born into this world as orphans. They don’t have parental care, they don’t have siblings to guide them. They don’t even form romantic partnerships down the track, but they have really short lifespans and so they need to learn.

So they’re really, I guess, out there to learn from all their experiences and sometimes even though they’re extremely vulnerable, that’s outweighed by their curiosity and their need to learn from any type of interaction that they can get.”

TV GOODNESS: For both of you, the possibility that octopus can dream and that we’ve now observed them working in harmony with other creatures and even living harmoniously with each other is so exciting. What do you hope to discover in the future?

Adam Geiger: “Wow. I think that we really are just scratching the surface of what the octopus mind is capable of and we have to study them more and probably shift our perspective by not looking at them from purely a human lens to really understand what they’re doing. The similarities that Alex is talking about are just striking and I think if we can look at how they live, but try to be the octopus as we’re looking at them, I think we’ll learn a lot more.”

TV GOODNESS: My final question is what do you hope people will take away from the series and what can we do to help with ocean conservation?

Dr. Alex Schnell: “I think the main takeaway message is that research has shown that humans really have the most empathy and compassion for animals that are most closely related to us. And as we move along the evolutionary tree, we feel more disconnected to other animals that look different and behave differently.

But the secrets that we reveal in this series and the glimmers of similarity and intelligence that we thought were once unique to animals such as chimpanzees and whales and crows are being observed in octopuses. So I hope that we can feel more connected to all the animals that we share our planet with, not overlook them just because they don’t have a backbone and learn to feel compassion and love for the most unlikely characters on our planet. We want to protect what we love.”

Adam Geiger: “I think that the best way that we can as individuals try to protect all of those animals out there that we are now learning, have so much more to them than we thought, is to try to take care of our planet. Because if we don’t take care of the natural world, we will all perish. So use less plastic. Try to choose your diet to have the least impact. I’m not saying to one way or another to be vegetarian or vegan or anything like that, but just be aware that everything you do as a human [has a] repercussion on the natural world.

If we can protect the ocean, we’re protecting the heart and the lungs of the planet and octopus are the perfect ambassador to see how much exists out there that we are still surprised by and amazed by.”

Dr. Alex Schnell: “It can be overwhelming when you think about the state of the planet and where we’re at and you’re just like, ‘What am I going to do?’ But there is so much power in consumer choices and what Adam was saying, really think about the choices that you make as a consumer. Can you make a more environmentally friendly choice? Are the choices you’re making with what you’re consuming? Are they ethical? Can you do better?

But not only that, who are you voting for? What are the politicians that you’re voting for? What businesses that you supporting? Because when we band together, we have a power to make movements and the people higher up that need to change will change if we all band together.”

Edited for clarity.

The three-part series premieres April 21st on NatGeo and streams April 22nd on Disney + and Hulu.

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