In today's episode, I speak with journalist and filmmaker Erik Olsen. Erik’s video journalism has taken him around the world, but his passion most always lies underwater in our world's oceans. His career has spanned ABC News, The Atlantic, Popular Science, and The New York Times.
And earlier this year he had a big spread in the Times Science section where he explored the world of backwater photography where underwater photographers shoot the strange creatures that rise to the surface in the open ocean at night.
I met with Erik just as covid was begging to rocket around the world and we recorded days before the world went into lockdown.
And yet, even with the anxiety that the world felt as everything shut down, we had a remarkable interview where Erik discussed why he felt such a personal connection to octopuses, why cephalopods are like beings from another world, and a breathtaking experience he had with a cuttlefish in the Lembeh Strait.
Scuba Diving, Free Diving, Ocean Environmentalism, Surfing, and Marine Science.
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Jason Elias: (00:09)
Hi, and welcome to the Big Deep podcast. Big Deep is a podcast about people who have a connection to the ocean. People for whom that connection is so strong, it defines some aspect of their life. Over the course of the series, we'll talk to all sorts of people. And in each episode, we'll explore the deeper meaning of that connection. Today, I speak with a science reporter from the New York Times who discusses his continuing fascination with the ocean and which led to a life-defining moment in the oceans of Indonesia. Hello, this is your host, Jason Elias. Welcome to the Big Deep podcast.
Jason Elias: (00:53)
In today's episode, I speak with journalist and filmmaker, Erik Olsen. Erik's video journalism has taken him around the world, but his passion most always lies underwater in our world's oceans. His career has spanned ABC News, the Atlantic, Popular Science, and the New York Times. And earlier this year, he had a big spread in the Times science section, where he explored the world of black water photography, where underwater photographers shoot the strange creatures that rise to the surface in the open ocean at night. I met with Erik last year, just as COVID was beginning to rocket around the world and we recorded days before the world went into lockdown. And yet, even with the anxiety that the world felt as everything was shutting down, we had a remarkable interview where Erik discussed why he felt such a personal connection to octopuses, why cephalopods are like beings from another world, and a breathtaking experience he had with a cuttlefish in the Lembeh Strait.
Erik Olsen: (01:44)
My name's Erik Olson. I am a professional video journalist here in Los Angeles. My interests have always been very much focused on science. I'm fascinated by sea creatures and life in the ocean. So I started doing a lot of that with the New York Times. And then I did decide that I wanted to go abroad and covered the Ukraine conflict, which was very scary. I was there in Kyiv when dozens of people were killed. I covered the migrant crisis in Greece, I covered the rise of the right-wing in Germany, but my passion was definitely the ocean still, and science. And so I came back to Los Angeles, finally left the New York Times, and I'm now an independent producer and I do a lot of ocean stories now.
Jason Elias: (02:26)
You say your passion was always the ocean. Where does that passion originally come from?
Erik Olsen: (02:34)
Well, I grew up in part, in Corona del Mar in Newport Beach, and probably every single day of my life during summer break, I was at the beach. I spent countless hours in the waves. I was very into boogie boards and body surfing, but I was also really into snorkeling, and I would spend hours having a mask on, looking in the tide pools. As you look around my office here, you can see all of this octopus paraphernalia. I'm in love with octopuses. My first experience with an octopus was being a young boy, probably nine years old in a tide pool, seeing a little octopus arm from under a rock about three feet deep in the tide pool, reaching down. And this octopus arm wrapped itself around my wrist and held onto me and a wave came in, and I was trying to lift my body and I couldn't do it. The octopus was holding onto my arm and the water went over my head. And I remember not being in any way frightened or terrified, but being enraptured.
Erik Olsen: (03:48)
Overcome with this feeling that I was connecting with this animal and that he was trying to connect with me. And I realized there was just a visceral joy in connecting with this animal. And ever since then I've been fascinated and in love with cephalopods. There's this theory of biophilia, that we are genetically programmed to connect with nature. I am a biophiliac. My medium happens to be the ocean. I would be in Ukraine in one of these war situations, and I would think to myself, God, I wish I was out on a boat right now. I wish I was diving. There is just some visceral, if not genetic passion that I have for the ocean.
Jason Elias: (04:35)
In your answer, you actually exactly described what a great journalist does, which is takes the facts of a situation, understanding what's happening on the ground, whether it's Ukrainian fighters or octopus arm coming out, and then allowing us to connect as human beings with that story. You have this biophilia, which we all feel in some way. You've crafted an entire life, explaining that biophilia to the rest of us. I mean, would you say that's fair to say?
Erik Olsen: (05:12)
The world is a wondrous fascinating place and we are intellectual beings constantly trying to understand it. And it's a magnificent world. There's no greater joy than not only doing something that you love but also having a career where you're constantly learning. And perhaps most of all, you're creating something. You're covering moments in history, there for a breakthrough or you're with an individual who's on some kind of adventure, and you are creating this piece of art. The word is curiosity. I'm endlessly curious.
Erik Olsen: (06:10)
I go out on these expeditions sometimes, for months at a time, living on a ship with scientists. And the joy often comes from sitting with a scientist who studies those magnificent giant blood worms that live around deep-sea vents, and being endlessly curious. Wondering why they survive down there, wondering how do they eat? What do they eat? What do they represent in terms of a new form of life? Getting back to genetics, we are programmed to communicate and tell stories. It's part of us being social beings on the planet. I don't think you can ask for anything more on this planet when it comes to having a job, to mix together adventure, experience, interesting people, and art.
Jason Elias: (07:20)
Bringing it back to the ocean, your logo is an octopus. I'm sitting here in your office and there are octopus pictures, paintings, drawings all over the place. So you obviously have a deep connection to something in octopuses or cephalopods. Can you tell me a little bit what's that about? What's so amazing about them that draws you in?
Erik Olsen: (07:40)
Cephalopods are basically squid, cuttlefish, and octopuses. They're some of the most alien-looking, but also intelligent beings on the planet. Cephalopods are related basically to clams, to shellfish, mollusks. The tree of life split 500 years ago, vertebrates developed their own kind of intelligence, but the worm had no intelligence when the split happened. So you now have a being, the cephalopods, particularly the octopuses who developed through a process called convergent evolution, which is exact same way, for example, birds and bats fly but developed the ability to fly totally differently. Here is an animal that has complex behavior and curiosity that developed intelligence along a completely different pathway than the vertebrate line. What could be more fascinating than that? Octopuses are invertebrates. They have no backbone, they have no bones.
Erik Olsen: (08:41)
They think that it's possible the octopus sees with its skin, the octopus is colorblind. Yet the octopus is able to go into any surroundings and change its color and patternization to match those surroundings. It's possible that the octopus has what's called a distributed intelligence, where it has neurons in its skin that allows it to perceive the world with its body. How does it do that? You don't need to go to Mars to find alien life. That alien life is sitting under a rock off the coast of California, the two-spotted octopus. So yeah, I'm obsessed because I think they are offering us inroads to understanding the basis of intelligence itself. And if you're full of wonder, there's no greater place on this planet right now than the ocean.
Jason Elias: (09:33)
You told a beautiful story about the octopus that grabs your arm when you were a kid, but is there another story of you being underwater that really moved you, a moment where you really deeply connected?
Erik Olsen: (09:47)
I went to Indonesia just a year ago with a very famous cephalopod scientist from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Roger Hanlon, who's regarded as one of the top cephalopod scientists on the planet. He invited me to go on a trip where he was bringing a new, state-of-the-art camera called the hyperspectral imager. Three weeks, diving, five dives a day of me following him as he's using this camera underwater. The idea is to take this camera into the shallow depths of the ocean in Indonesia, where there are a lot of cephalopods and there's a lot of great diversity of life, to film cephalopods themselves and to film other fish that are able to camouflage themselves.
Erik Olsen: (10:38)
So we're looking for cephalopods and we are finding a lot of them. Then there was this one instance. This was in Lembeh Straits, perhaps the most unbelievably biodiverse marine ecosystem on the planet. Known for muck diving, but there are also some fantastic reefs and some of the most bizarre creatures on the planet. We were on a long white dive boat, beautiful, beautiful day, gaping blue skies, some clouds, it's a paradise. All around us were these mountainous islands, but deeply forested, all very rainforesty. There were small villages cramped back into the nooks where there were huts and people living very simple lives. So we go under the water to film these animals. Roger gave me the sign that he was running out of air and we were filming an animal. It was a cuttlefish, which are these magnificent animals. They're cephalopods as well. They look like octopuses, but all the tentacles and arms come off the front of the head. And they've got these magnificent eyes that are always taking in the world around them.
Erik Olsen: (12:10)
Roger has to go back up to switch his tank. So I am down there with this cuttlefish, thinking I'm going to get a couple of shots for this story. So I move in on the cuttlefish, slowly. One of the magnificent things about these animals compared to, say, a fish, fish will always swim away from you, the closer you get to them. These cephalopods, cuttlefish in particular, won't necessarily do that. They will hang out. So I'm down there, me and this cuttlefish. He's probably a foot and a half long. He's displaying this magnificent color. It's kind of a warning signal. Could also be some other type of communication, we don't know. Where, the chromatophores, which are the cells that change color in these animal skin go-to red or yellow, or white. And they make these wave patterns over their skin. Magnificent displays.
Erik Olsen: (13:20)
And we are communicating. He's not swimming away from me. I'm three feet away from him and we are sitting together, just taking each other in. And I spent that entire hour making eye contact, smiling, laughing, making little movements with my hand that would sort of chase him away. But then he'd come back. At one point, I was following him over a rock as he was sort of slowly backing up, kind of got my camera focused on this animal. And I look back up and this animal is now creeping towards me. I'm sort of lifting my body up, I'm now more in a kneeling position on this rock. This animal settled into my lap for 10 or 15 seconds.
Erik Olsen: (14:38)
Eventually, it swims away but I was left with this incredibly profound feeling of connection that goes beyond intellectualizing things. It was visceral, it was beautiful. It was magnificent. And I just sat there for a minute alone, trying to digest what had just happened with this creature. And I regard it as one of those great life moments. You were in an exotic place, in Indonesia on this incredibly beautiful reef in this incredibly beautiful place, all alone with this animal, having this experience. Nothing like it in the world.
Jason Elias: (15:44)
Finally, we end every interview and every episode with a single open-ended question we ask everyone we talk to. What does the ocean mean to you?
Erik Olsen: (15:54)
It is this incredible mixture of beauty, curiosity, and endless wonder. The ocean is like a dream.
Jason Elias: (16:17)
Thanks for listening to the Big Deep podcast. Next time on Big Deep.
Speaker 3: (16:23)
I could kind of see a little shadow. I look down and there's my first shark. I don't even remember what shark it was, but it was the way it made me feel.
Jason Elias: (16:35)
We really appreciate you being on this journey into the Big Deep as we explore an ocean of stories. If you like what we're doing, please make sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. Also, please like and comment because those subscribes, likes, and comments really make a difference. For more interviews, deeper discussions with our guests, photos, and updates on anything you've heard, there's a lot more content at our website, bigdeep.com. Plus, if you know someone whom you think we should talk to, let us know at our Big Deep website, as we are always looking to hear more stories from interesting people who are deeply connected to our world's oceans. Thanks again for joining us.