The movie adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Blueback is out this week. It focuses on a friendship with a big friendly fish – the blue groper; and the powerful response to humans threatening the animal. As with My Octopus Teacher, it’s a highly emotive story, and seen by most people as unusual or unique. Because humans only befriend domestic animals such as cats and dogs. Or do they?
Let’s start with the blue groper. This is a charismatic Australian native, with many interesting characteristics. They are protogynous hermaphrodites, starting life as juveniles with the potential to be male or female; and always starting as green-coloured females. The dominant male has a harem and, if he dies, the largest female will become male and adopt the striking blue hue which gives the fish its name. These fish can live up to 70 years and are the state emblem of New South Wales.
Beyond the science, these are extraordinarily curious and friendly fish. As a regular snorkeller and diver, I am often greeted by a groper who will shove his face in my camera, rub up against my hands, bop me with his lips and follow me around. Gropers appear to recognise divers and are curious about what we are doing. It is illegal to spear these animals in my home state but such is my emotional response to their friendliness, I can imagine jumping in front of a weapon aimed at one of my friends.
Octopuses are similarly interactive and interested in us. They are invertebrates who have developed unique, extraordinary intelligence, diverging from us evolutionarily more than 600m years ago. They use tools and mimicry, construct shelters, steal things and are known to be escape artists when kept in captivity.
In Sydney we primarily interact with the gloomy octopus (Octopus tetricus). One of my life’s highlights was the first time one of these creatures unfurled a tentacle and explored my hand. Since then I’ve had many interactions, including octopuses riding on my hand, trying desperately to steal my camera, and some who tell me to go away by blowing sand at me. Unfortunately, octopuses don’t live long – usually becoming senescent after breeding and lasting only one to two years. The ones we see regularly are often eaten by smooth stingrays in the blink of an eye. It’s hard to get too fond of them as the end is always near.
Moving to the land, and most of us are familiar with wild birds seeking human company. Yes, they are often after food, but who isn’t? My neighbourhood is dominated by sulphur-crested cockatoos, but it only takes a little patience to have a rainbow lorikeet or a king parrot work up the courage to stand on a human hand.
Even tiny insects can notice humans and change their behaviour to interact with us. Jumping spiders are in almost everyone’s garden but you might miss them if you don’t look hard. Most are less than half a centimetre long. Lock eyes with one, however, and there’s no doubt that they see you, moving their bodies to make eye contact. Also fans of cameras, they sometimes jump right at you!
Relationships with wild animals are possible and common – you can have your own Blueback or My Octopus Teacher experience. Return to the same place often enough and you’ll get to know the regulars. Getting to know animals as individuals with varying personalities and behaviour grants them elevated importance. But be aware that it is likely to push you closer to vegetarianism and inspire you towards conservation. Because once you have a relationship and an attachment to another living creature, they become part of your sphere of compassion. And then there is no choice but to protect both the animal and its environment. A “pet” blue groper or a labrador? You can have both, and it will probably make you a better human.
Kate Ahmad is a neurologist and diver with an interest in human and animal behaviour and conservation