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National Geographic docuseries features Vancouver Island octopus whisperers

The Secrets of the Octopus will be released in Canada on May 22
Members of the film crew of the Secrets of the Octopus including: Roger McDonell (blue sweater), Krystal Janicki (middle in back row) and Manfred Lippe (blue polo, far right). Photo by Roger McDonell.

Several Vancouver Islanders were involved in Secrets of the Octopus, a National Geographic documentary produced by James Cameron and narrated by Paul Rudd.

The docuseries features a variety of octopuses in various habitats, including filming around the Campbell River area.

Maxwel Hohn, a cinematographer and diver from the Comox Valley, who received critical acclaim for Netflix’s Island of the Sea Wolves, was chosen to helm the project with Australia’s SeaLight Pictures.

“He specializes in underwater cinematography,” says Roger McDonell, who skippered the boat used by the show in the Campbell River-filmed scenes. “He used to work at the DiveSafe School as an instructor here in Campbell River, and he’s kind of branched over into exploring his artistic skill set, and he’s been out diving with us a bit on our boat on some other projects and that, not anything major like this. He had the initial contact with them, and they wanted to come out to British Columbia and knew of his work and, of course, they were looking for the giant Pacific octopus which we have in the waters here.”

Hohn chose McDonell’s boat because it has an elevator attached to it, making it easier for divers and filming equipment to get on and off the boat, as opposed to hoisting the equipment up and over the boat’s gunnels.

Krystal Janicki, Tynan Callesen, Shannon Groenewegen, Manfred Lippe, and Russell Clark were locals who also helped out in the project.

Janicki, from Black Creek, has been diving for nine years. She says she has endless connections with the giant Pacific octopus after 1,000 dives. Janicki is also known as the “octopus whisperer.”

“When I was newer in my dive journey, I thought it was a normal occurrence for people to have these incredible moments with Giant Pacific octopuses,” she says. “But in chats with other divers, I began realizing that this was very unique; to often have such powerful and long encounters with the animal. So, within a few years of my diving, other divers started commenting saying I must just be an octopus whisperer.

Lippe, who worked as the film unit’s diving safety coordinator, expanded on it.

“They (octopuses) seem to be attracted to her. But the thing is that she is one of the few people that I have met that if there is an octopus the first thing she does is take her glove off and put her bare hand out there… octopuses love skin, so they get attracted to the warmth of your skim. They tend to play with her and some will perceive Krystal not as a threat but as an almost-like friend.”

Lippe says she is like an octopus magnet. That was more or less her role in the series. Janicki says her role in the series was to show the connections a giant Pacific octopus can form.

“They are the largest octopus in the world, and their hearts seem to be just as big as they are. They wanted to show the size comparison from a diver to a Giant Pacific octopus. But, also how curious and tender they can be when they bond with someone,” she says. “They are incredibly smart and recognize faces.”

A giant Pacific octopus has a life span of three to five years. They usually weigh around 33 pounds, with an arm span of up to 14 feet. However, some have been discovered to weigh around 110 pounds. They are also one of the only species that use tools.

Janicki says the octopus they encountered trusted her immediately and took her from its den to stroll around the reef and into shallow water.

The Campbell River segment is around 15 minutes and features in the series’ second episode. It solely focuses on the giant Pacific octopus. The experience of filming the series was even more magical than the series showed, Janicki says. Janicki and the crew showed a lot of respect to the octopus they encountered, allowing it the freedom to show her the reef, hunt, or just explore Janicki.

“The staff from Australia that were here for the filming were incredibly kind and humble. They had so much patience and understanding since we were working in Mother Nature with wildlife, and we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” she says.

The three episodic series is part of Cameron’s Secrets Of franchise, which also contains Secrets of the Whales and Secrets of the Elephants. The Secrets of the Octopus was released on Earth Day (April 21) in the United States on Disney+, Hulu and the National Geographic Channel. It will be available in Canada on Disney+ on May 22.

READ MORE: Island cinematographer dives into the world of giant Pacific Octopus for Nat Geo series

About the Author: Brendan Jure

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