(Photo: Craig Foster)
The Daily Rally

Pippa Ehrlich Dives Deeper

After the success of ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ the film’s director was burnt out and unable to create. She found solace and renewed passion on a remote island sanctuary.

Craig Foster

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Pippa Ehrlich told her story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I came off three years of making the film, and then into the crazy success of the film. Screenings and interviews at ten o’clock at night, two o’clock in the morning. I think things just got really out of control, and I had very little interest in doing work, because I was just too tired. It just felt too overwhelming. And your confidence takes a massive battering because things that were easy before become incredibly, incredibly difficult.

I’m a filmmaker and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa.

I just love being in the water. And even as a little kid, my gran said that when I’d get stressed out and difficult to deal with, she just used to put me in the bath.

I spent three years of my life working on this film called My Octopus Teacher. It was not an easy concept to sell, because it’s the story of a man who befriends an octopus underwater in a kelp forest. He meets this little octopus and then, every single day, he goes back to the space that she lives in, and he spends time with her and he learns about her world.

While I was working on My Octopus Teacher, I was diving literally every single day for three or four years. Craig, who was the subject of the film and my co-collaborator, and I really made the film together on a very ordinary iMac.

I could start working at 8:00 AM and work until 2:00 AM very, very easily, and not even feel tired the next day. And that really was the main focus of my life, and it had become this incredible foundation that I’d built myself up on.

We never dreamed that the project would get that successful, and we were in no way prepared for what that success would mean. Suddenly, I found myself living on Zoom, going from interview to panel discussion, to talk, to online awards ceremony. I just started to live in this virtual Zoom space, all through COVID.

And then the whirlwind of flying to the Oscars. And eventually coming back from all of that and being deeply, deeply grateful that the film had resonated in the way that it had. But also feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed and totally and utterly burned out.

Whereas I was used to being able to look at the weather and say, OK, I’m gonna go diving at this time. The thing that had been a major priority for me suddenly dropped all the way to the back of the list. It feels like a level of exhaustion to the point where if I wrote one email, I’d have to go to bed for two or three hours afterwards.

If you are in a really, really bad space, then that’s what you will start to see in the world around you.

I remember going to the beach one day, it’s my favorite beach, but when we went out that day, the whole thing was just covered in noodles. Noodles are these little tiny, tiny pieces of plastic. Every plastic thing starts off as a noodle. Some ship had overturned in the ocean. For over a year, we had people sitting on the beach all over Cape Town collecting these noodles. Anyway, when you’re in a really bad head space, that’s the kind of thing you start to see more of.

And then this amazing opportunity materialized.

Craig, his wife Swati, and I were all invited to this incredible place. It’s a research station in the middle of nowhere in the Indian Ocean, on an island called D’Arros. The research station is managed by the Save Our Seas Foundation. I got on my phone and called every single person that I had an appointment with and I just emptied out my entire diary.

You fly out from Mahé, which is the capital of the Seychelles. You get in this tiny plane and you fly straight across the ocean. They’re these little tiny dots of islands underneath you. They have to run up and down and make sure that there are no giant tortoises on the airstrip because that’s obviously very dangerous for the plane and very dangerous for the tortoise. They’re like living dinosaurs, hundreds and hundreds of kilos.

The minute I set foot on that island, I just felt completely different. This place is so special because it’s been protected for a very long time, I think since the ’70s, and it’s so remote that going to D’Arros is like going back in time.

You are living in this marine Jurassic Park, and there are tornadoes of birds flying above your head. Giant frigate birds that look and sound like pterodactyls. Everything under the water and on the land and in the air is functioning in balance, the way that it would’ve been hundreds of years ago. You literally walk off the shore in D’Arros, put your head under the sea in this perfect blue ocean, and you feel like you are in an animated movie about coral. There are not just one or two turtles, there are hundreds of turtles. Then you swim out a little bit further, and if you feel your skin starting to sting a bit, there’s plankton in the water, there’s a really good chance that they’ll be manta rays.

We actually went on a boat and there were literally about 15 huge manta rays feeding up and down and swimming around the boat. We jumped in the water. Then it started to rain. And it was like they just got so excited, and there is something really magical about being in the ocean when it’s raining. I could feel in the animals that they were equally excited. Just swerving around, and coming straight up, and watching me with one eye. Then moving their wingtip over the top of my head, and swirling underneath, and turning upside down, and showing me their belly. It was just this experience that reignited that sense of enthusiasm and excitement for life.

To be brought back to the core thing that motivates you, which is this deep love of nature, and knowledge that healthy places are really what we need for healthy people. If there could be more spaces like that on our planet, then that’s something that is worth waking up in the morning and working really, really hard to be part of.

When you come back from paradise, and you can’t just walk off the beach and swim with turtles and manta rays, you need something else that’s accessible. I started this morning ritual of waking up, and sitting there by myself, meditating and doing some breath work and listening to the birds. Just having this very, very calm moment at the start of my day.

It’s really hard to stop, and I think sometimes that’s why we burn ourselves out so badly. Because no matter how tired we are, the thought of stopping is just too terrifying. But finding just some quiet time in your day, every day, preferably in the morning, to just make sure that your heart and your mind are a reasonably centered space is something that everyone can do. Then when you go about your day and you make decisions from that place rather than from a really, really busy or stressed or overwhelmed place, you generally make much better decisions, and particularly decisions that are much better for you and your well-being.

Pippa Ehrlich is a journalist and filmmaker specializing in stories about conservation, science, and the relationship between people and the natural world. She is the co-director of My Octopus Teacher, South Africa’s first Netflix original documentary, and currently works for the Sea Change Project. You can learn about Pippa’s work at

You can follow The Daily Rally on SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you like to listen. Subscribe to our newsletter and nominate someone to be featured on the show.

Trending on Outside Online