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James Cameron’s return to the ocean for Secrets of the Octopus for Nat Geo

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Stony Brook chapter.

Nat Geo’s Secrets of the Octopus premiered on Earth Day. The next installment of James Cameron’s award-winning franchise focused exclusively on an amazing sea creature that many of us overlook: The Octopus. When you think of marine animals being featured in a series dolphins, sharks, beluga whales or even sea turtles may come to mind. But James Cameron decided to take a different approach: octopuses.

Join Dr. Alex Schnell as she takes viewers back into the oceans in Secrets of the Octopus. Season 3 heads back into the sea giving viewers a unique perspective and up close view of how Octopus live, learn, and eat. While you may not know a lot about this cephalopod other than they’re usually above the O in the alphabet in many children’s classrooms, these animals are just as interesting as any shark, dolphin, or sea turtle. This installment of James Cameron’s Secret required Dr. Alex Schnell, an expert in cephalopod to host this series. As a child living in Australia, Schnell first became interested in octopuses and other cephalopods.

I got a chance to speak with Dr. Schnell regarding the show and the general octopuses. While there can’t quite be spoilers on a show regarding animals and their behavior, I did ask her about some of the things in the show that blew me away. The filmography is stunning. We see a variety of Octopuses both on land and in the sea. the visuals are amazing as the texture and colors are clearly shown. They also have some amazing close-ups. The production company didn’t just rely on zooming lenses and staying in the background. Dr. Schnell explained this stating, “The filmmakers were there a few days before me often trying to acclimate with the animal and trying to tell the animal that it’s safe and all this equipment wasn’t something that they should fear.” In some shots, you see that the crew did get close and personal with the Octopuses. In other cases, you can see that the crew stayed back as they observed the Octopuses in their habitat going about their everyday lives.

One such example is when an octopus crosses over land to get some tasty food. However, the journey wasn’t without danger; the most notable being the sun- if an octopus dries out, it dies. What fascinated me so much about this scene was that octopuses have no one to guide them. They are born for all intents and purposes as orphans and live alone as they have very limited life spans; 1-2 years with the larger species living up to 5 years. “You’re under time pressure. And I feel like they come out of that egg ready to learn. And so some of it’s trial and error some of it is associations like: ‘when I do this, I get a good reward.’ Some of it is using memory to refine the solutions to the problems that they’re faced with like: ‘last time this happened. I dried out a little bit and I felt ill so next time, I’ve got to do this.’ But they’re just little individual mines that are just programmed to learn. And so I think that that is their weapon in the ocean,” said Dr. Schnell. However, there were some challenges in the production including some of the crew getting COVID and finding the Octopuses, to begin with.

When I asked her about the most challenging thing she said it was patience. “They all have very different personalities. Some can be really bold and you can spend 20 minutes with one(…) or they just want to come and swim and completely ignore you. (…) It can take a couple of days of just sitting there watching it, making the animal realize that you’re not a threat.” When it comes to what was the most interesting behavior, Dr. Schnell mentioned that “I’m still blown away by how quickly it happens for them to trust you.”

In terms of behavior, Dr. Schnell said that what stood out to her the most was the collaborative hunting. “I’ve read about that but never seen it in person. Seeing the sophistication and the steps involved in that interaction was really incredible,” she said. She mentioned one specific incident where a small octopus needed to find shelter fast, resulting in some unique solutions showing innovation and intelligence: “I could not believe this little octopus was using coconuts or shells as protective dens. Here we had this coconut octopus that was being agitated and threatened by mantis shrimp right in front of us. The octopus grabbed the shell and used it as a shield(…), and it was just those moments that make you realize how sophisticated their minds are,” she said.

When it comes to being an ally for octopuses, Dr. Schnell had a few examples including not supporting farm-raised octopuses or farms in particular. She also gave advice that can go past just supporting. “I think one should support companies that align with your ethical views about how the environment should be protected, and also vote for politicians that have similar morals as well. Once those things are banded together, we have less of this feeling of feeling powerless and those choices can go a long way,” she said.

Before we ended the interview I asked her what it was like being a female marine biologist, and if she encountered any issues. “Yes. Sadly, like many areas of science and even outside of science, a lot of these fields are male-dominated. In marine science, It’s hugely male-dominated, even in the diving sector. I did encounter challenges and female barriers that I had to come across. My mentors told me at one point that having children was career suicide. Just hearing that in the 21st century is very disappointing,” she said. I asked Dr. Schnell if she had any advice for women who want to pursue a career in marine biology. “My advice is we offer such a powerful perspective as women in this field. You look at not just as humans, but everywhere in nature. We’re so powerful. Don’t let comments like that say you’re not capable of achieving what you can achieve. Surround yourself with mentors who get you, and who understand you and the goals that you want to achieve. I’m hoping we’re moving towards a new era where a lot of women are breaking through the glass ceiling. And so I hope it gets easier, but perseverance is so important,” she said. This season’s focus on Octopuses is alluring, beautiful, and very informative. I was never interested in octopuses before but that changed after watching it. Secrets of The Octopus is available to watch on NatGeo and Disney+.

I love writing about beauty, entertainment, fashion and accessories and more. I love musicals, singing, movies and all things beauty including hair! I've acted in movies, sung opera and won pageants. I also write fiction and many of my stories have been featured in anthologies.