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15 May 2024

Craig Foster Q&A: “My theme tune? The sound of a whale’s ear bone”

The Oscar-winning documentary-maker on marine biology, invading isopods, and the regenerative power of nature.

By New Statesman

Craig Foster was born in the Cape of Good Hope. He is a naturalist, documentary film-maker and founder of the Sea Change Project. His film My Octopus Teacher won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2021.

What’s your earliest memory?

Thinking about it I can almost smell the Atlantic Ocean. We lived in a tiny wooden bungalow below the high watermark and it felt like you were living in the ocean: isopods used to come into the house sometimes during a big storm.

Who are your heroes?

My great-grandmother and grandmother have always been my heroes. They were very loving, special people. My brother and I used to walk along the coast every day looking for animals and natural treasures and tell them about our adventures. They were very good at listening.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

It would be 100,000 years ago on the coast in False Bay [next to Cape Town]. I’d give anything to live even a few days with a Middle Stone Age family on this coast, as I know that I’d learn more than I probably would in my whole lifetime. Human origin is one of my greatest passions.

Who would paint your portrait?

Pigcasso – an extraordinary pig who was saved from a torturous environment and started to paint. I would be quite self-conscious having a person doing my portrait, but an animal would be special.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

It would be underwater tracking, definitely.

What’s your theme tune?

I once had the opportunity to create a sea-forest anthem, working with some talented artists. I played a whale’s ear bone that I’d found many years ago, which didn’t make any noise on land but made this deep booming sound under the water. It was amazing playing it back into the ocean. That would be my theme tune: it’s monotonous but very resonant.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t take life too seriously. I’ve got to keep reminding myself of that.

What political figure do you look up to?

Certainly Nelson Mandela. He was just extraordinary.

What’s currently bugging you?

That biodiversity, which is the life-support system of this planet, is not the top focus on everybody’s agenda. We’re utterly reliant on it, no matter where in the world we are.

What single thing would make your life better?

The regeneration of wild ecosystems.

When were you happiest?

I was happiest in a place of near pristine environment some 4,000km off the coast of East Africa. The effect healthy nature has on the human psyche is absolutely remarkable. It has a massive effect on our well-being.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Perhaps I would have studied biology from a much younger age. My work is so multidisciplinary that I can’t choose anything else. I’m very interested in cosmology and how the universe works, so maybe evolutionary cosmology.

Are we all doomed?

I’m hopeful, for a few reasons: nature has the enormous power to regenerate if we just give her the chance, and humans have this extraordinary capacity for care and empathy. I’m hoping that with these things combined we can look forward to a much brighter future.

Craig Foster’s “Amphibious Soul: Finding the Wild in a Tame World” is published by Thorsons on 23 May 2024, with accompanying short films at seachangeproject.com

[See also: Sarah Perry Q&A: “When was I happiest? When I left the church I was raised in”]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink