Craig Foster Interview

June 3, 2015

Craig Foster is a South-African film maker, photographer and naturalist who has free-dived - without a wetsuit - every day for the past few years in the cold water kelp-forests on Cape Town's coast. His perpetual amphibious pilgrimage has inspired countless others to fall in love with the rich oceans at the southern end of Africa. But it was twenty years ago in the Kalahari that Craig first witnessed - and experienced - the "primal joy" of immersion in wilderness. I interviewed Craig at his home on the mountainside above False Bay.
Craig Foster and Common Octopus

Craig Foster and Common Octopus

A few years ago I watched The Great Dance, a widely-acclaimed documentary film by Craig Foster and his brother Damon about the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the role of hunting in their society and psyche. During production, the Foster brothers spent most of three years living in the Central Kalahari of Botswana with Bushmen hunters !Nqate Xqamxebe, Karoha Langwane and Xlhoase Xlhokhne.

From The Great Dance to Cosmic Africa, from Sharkman to The Animal Communicator, the Foster brothers have helped to tell the stories of people who are closely connected to the natural world and it’s animals.

Craig’s photographs in the book My Heart Stands in the Hill (co-crafted with rock art expert Janette Deacon) are some of the most poweful and poignant I have seen. His images of projections of old black-and-white photographs of Bushmen onto the Karoo landscape are profoundly moving.

These days Craig is far from the Kalahari desert. For the past three years he has immersed himself in the rich ocean waters near his home at Simonstown, about an hour south of Cape Town. He has free-dived every day in these cold, wild waters (without wetsuit!), come rain or shine. He continues to explore, document and relate his experiences of this enormously biodiverse environment.

In the past few years, science and research has shown that this stretch of Cape coastline at the southwestern tip of Africa is where modern man survived – and thrived – during the last ice age.

It is, therefore, as Craig says: “ one of the most likely points of origin of our human species.” As part of Sea Change Project, Craig and his friend Ross Frylink are telling the story of every human’s ancient link to this very special part of Africa.


Scott Ramsay: You’ve worked all over Africa in some of the wildest places. But the oceans of the Cape are your favourite. Why?

Craig Foster: By far the most powerful and inspirational place I know is the 400km stretch of coast and ocean at the southern tip of Africa, extending from the west near Cape Town to Tsitsikamma in the east.

Why? Because this place is the most scientifically-intact “time machine” on earth. There’s a large body of evidence here covering many aspects of Middle Stone Age existence. The innovations taking place in human culture along this coastline at 60 000 to 100 000 years ago are truly extraordinary.

Professor Chris Henshilwood is a South African A-rated scientist who is helping me understand the very complex science behind the evidence, which suggests this coastline could well be the cradle of the human mind. From a human heritage perspective it’s the most remarkable place on earth.

There are other related reasons why I love this ocean wilderness of the Cape. This area is where the two great ocean currents of southern Africa meet – the Benguela and the Agulhas. And Cape Point south of Cape Town is usually where these cold and warm ocean waters meet, although it does shift depending on conditions.

Cape Point and the adjacent coastline is really one of the most powerful places in terms of life. Because of the huge upwelling created by the Benguela Current, I don’t know anywhere else on the planet that has so much life.

Part of this incredible ecological system is the extensive underwater kelp forests. I’ve spent the last three years swimming and exploring every single day in this environment, and it has overwhelmed me.

What I’ve found is that you can visit places for a few days or weeks, even months, and they leave an impression on you, but when you immerse yourself in one place for a few years, you actually have a true, deep reciprocal bond and relationship with your environment. You actually have a love affair with it. It’s completely different.

So no other place in the world can ever compete for me. If you measure it on a scale of 0 to 100, the southern Cape coast of Africa is at 100, and the next place is at one.


Craig Foster filming in the kelp forests near his home in Simonstown, adjacent to False Bay.

Craig Foster filming in the kelp forests near his home in Simonstown, adjacent to False Bay.

You grew up with a deep connection to the ocean, correct?

Yes, I never knew this, but my grandmother recently told me that on the day of my birth, my mother Diane went free-diving in the morning and she gave birth to me in the afternoon.

Once I was born, I was taken into the ocean. Since I was a toddler I was looking for animals in the rockpools and sea, so the love of this place is embedded in me.

We grew up in a beach bungalow in Bakoven near Cape Town, so I lived the first ten years of my life sleeping below the high water mark. During a big storm the waves used to smash down the windows. I remember us sitting in the house and the water filling up my bedroom, coming up to my waist. It was very exciting for my brother Damon and I, but not for our parents probably!

These days my parents are still diving, and I dive with them regularly. My mom is still fearless, and my dad Keith is very resistant to the cold. They don’t wear wetsuits. As a child I used to watch my dad free-diving to the bottom of the ocean floor and I remember being amazed that he could stay under for so long. It was magical.


Craig Foster and his son Tom on the shores of the Cape peninsula. (Copyright Craig Foster)

Craig Foster and his son Tom on the shores of the Cape peninsula. (Copyright Craig Foster)

Craig Foster in his natural habitat, the kelp forests of the Cape Peninsula.

Craig Foster in his natural habitat, the kelp forests of the Cape Peninsula.

Going back to your love for the oceans and coast of the southern Cape. Tell me a bit more about why you find it so special?

At first I just wanted to immerse myself in a wild place, and the ocean here is the wildest place I know.

You swim out 500 metres anywhere here and I promise you, you’ll feel like you’re in a wild place. I spent six months swimming the coast, moving 5km along the coast every day, and I found amazing spots.

After six months, I started spending more time in little patches of selected kelp forest. After a year, I started to notice more and more, as the animals started to emerge. They’re highly cryptic and they’re masters of camouflage. It was unbelievable.

But there are also the big animals, of course. I found a small bay where sometimes there are huge congregations of sharks, up to six species of sharks and up to a hundred individuals. Sometimes they’re waist deep, and some of the sharks are well over two metres!

After a few years of this, I felt I could approach scientists who’d studied these animals. I asked Professor Charles Griffiths at University of Cape Town and he sparked off this incredible interest in the marine biology. I’ve been going out with him on a regular basis and it’s a master class every time. My curiosity just went through the roof.

It’s mind-blowing. If you lift a rock in the kelp forest here, there can easily be a hundred animals under that one rock. If you lift the rock like that anywhere else in the world, there’ll be maybe five or ten, and you can learn the species very quickly. The ecology here will take much more than a lifetime to study. You literally need ten lifetimes to get a sense of really what was going on.


Cape Point south of Cape Town, the approximate area where the colder Benguela and warmer Agulhas ocean currents meet.

Cape Point south of Cape Town, the approximate area where the colder Benguela and warmer Agulhas ocean currents meet.

The Cape Peninsula is fringed with rich ocean waters, with large kelp forests, like this one near Kommetjie on the western shores of the Cape peninsula.

The Cape Peninsula is fringed with rich ocean waters, with large kelp forests, like this one near Kommetjie on the western shores of the Cape peninsula.

Some experts, including you, suggest this coastline is the home to modern humans?

Yes, human beings have been living here on the southern coast of Africa for the past 200 000 odd years. Few places on Earth can match this ongoing human relationship with the environment.

Obviously what’s broken is the deep reciprocity that they had with their environment. Current human society has lost that almost completely.

But we haven’t lost it totally. It’s broken, but the relationship carries on within us. Say you’re walking down to the ocean near Cape Point, chances are you’re seeing the green and gold of the fynbos, the white beach, the emerald sea, the rich browns of the kelp forests and the blue sky. For some reason, these colours are deeply imprinted on our genetics. These colours are the address of our primal and evolutionary memory.

It hits you like a freight train because you unconsciously remember this as the home of our ancestors for thousands and thousands of years. We’re genetically attuned to this coastline and region, far more than most other places on Earth.

Scientists previously thought the African savannah was the window of evolutionary memory, but the genetic and archeological evidence seems to suggest a Southern African origin.

I like to think these bands of white, blue, gold and green of our coast are more deeply imprinted in our ancient memory than the colours of the savannah.


For the Sea Change project, Craig took a series of photographs with the help of local people, depicting what experts believed modern stone-age people looked like on the Cape peninsula. (Copyright Craig Foster)

For the Sea Change project, Craig took a series of photographs with the help of local people, depicting what experts believed modern stone-age people looked like on the Cape peninsula. (Copyright Craig Foster)

You’ve had some truly amazing interactions with wild animals. Which are the ones that stand out for you?

The first one was right here, off the east coast of False Bay in front of my house. It was mid-winter, seven o’clock in the morning, still dark. I was diving with no wetsuit and wondering what the hell am I doing.

Then this Cape clawless otter approached me. I kept trying to turn to the otter to see it, but I got the sense it was wary of my mouth, that I could maybe bite it. So I just lay in the water and allowed the otter to come behind me. After a while it started touching my feet, and then it realised I wasn’t a threat.

Then it moved around, touched my hand and then touched my face with its dextrous fingers, and just looked into my eyes and touched my face for about 15 minutes. It was totally overwhelming, and a very powerful experience.

It was actually too much for me, so I got out of the water and the otter came right up to me at my feet and started to lift itself out the water. I felt like maybe it wanted me to come back into the water with it. I was overwhelmed. It was too much. I went back for a little bit but had to get out, because it was so overwhelming.

It’s happened four times now with different otters, where they’ve actually come in to make physical contact with me. Sometimes they’ve been quite afraid, but there’s definitely something happening there. It could be that we had these early reciprocal relationships with animals, whether it be co-operative hunting or whatever it was, and I think sometimes these animals are remembering this reciprocity they had with us humans.


A Cape clawless otter, regularly encountered by Craig during his dives around the Cape peninsula.

A Cape clawless otter, regularly encountered by Craig during his dives around the Cape peninsula.

So you’re saying that otters may have once seen us as potential allies?

Well, certainly something co-operative. There’s amazing work done by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas with the Bushmen, and hunting with lions and sharing the meat. There’s research done in Mauritania where dolphins hunt cooperatively with humans, and they share the fish.

There’s evidence of the same happening with barracuda in Hawaii, and with otters in Bangladesh, so this stuff has been happening a long time. I think we had a lot of that in the past.

Imagine there’s so much food, so much resource, so there’s no competition. In the Cape you’ve got these intelligent animals like otters and baboons that you can interact with.

They could be very useful warning systems for predators as well. If you’ve got baboons near you it’s very useful. They’re going to see the leopard long before you do so you want them close. You don’t want to kill the baboons, because they’re wild enough, they’re probably not going to steal your food because there’s more than enough food, and you have a good balance with them.


It’s a great pity that modern society has lost this connection with wild animals…your thoughts?

Yes, early humans had a deep connection to a large number of species. The Bushmen talk about these relationships with wild animals as “ropes to God”. They’ve got these bonds with many, many different animals. It’s like a deep love. When I’ve accompanied Kalahari bushmen on a hunt, they have a deep love for it and a deep respect for it.

They say you can’t hunt an animal unless you love it. The Bushmen have these incredible love bonds with wild animals, even the ones they hunt.

Sadly, most of that’s been lost in our society. And it has implications for human relationships with each other, because no human can ever give you back that multiplicity of connections and love, so it’s quite disturbing for the psyche on many levels.

Imagine you’ve got maybe at least a hundred species that you’re interacting with on a daily basis, and these relationships have been going on for thousands of years. Now in the modern era, where there is very little of that, you turn to your poor human partner or family, and you’re expecting that same richness of relationship, that same fulfillment of connection. And obviously they can’t give it, so you’re disappointed.


The otter interaction must have been very special, but you had an arguably more intense experience with tiger sharks?

Yes, I spent five weeks free diving with a group of tiger sharks at Aliwal Shoal on the east coast of South Africa. It was 7km out, and we were drifting for up to 10km a time with this group of ten tiger sharks. They were big, probably 14-15ft animals, almost a ton in weight.

It was quite some time back, when Walter Bernardis pioneered diving with tiger sharks, and showed that they weren’t going to kill you.

At the time if you read any of the literature, you’d assume that if you saw a tiger shark, you had to get out the water because they would kill you. Of course, that’s a total misconception.

Sometimes, yes, they do kill people, but rarely. We spent five weeks, six hours a day with these animals in the water. There were some mock charges, when they were testing us. Obviously we didn’t do anything silly, so we’d never swim away from them, we always faced them down, and we tried to remain as calm as possible. They totally accepted our presence. It was absolutely extraordinary.


You must have been scared at first?

Yes, sure, but when you’re with Walter, it gives you a bit of confidence, and then after a few dives you get too confident probably. We used to be bobbing on the surface, just looking around and these huge sharks would bump up against you.

Walter eventually got bitten quite badly but he’s fine now.

Nevertheless, it was incredible and eventually these huge animals allowed us to ride on their backs. Their fins are huge, and you’re holding on tightly because the shark doesn’t even slow down for a second as it drags you. I think they enjoyed the human and physical touch. It was remarkable and, of course, you fall in love with them.

Then it was so disturbing to go to the Natal Sharks Board and see these idiots cutting up sharks they’d caught in the net, showing groups of children. I was just literally sobbing when I saw this.

Sadly, some fishermen hammered that beautiful group of sharks we dived with. The other sharks totally lost trust with humans. I understand from Walter that the trust may be coming back now but it was so disturbing. They take ages to grow to that size and they’re very vulnerable.

My fear of sharks just went away. After a while, they were almost affectionate in their attitudes. There was some smell of bait in the water but there were no food rewards, so they were curious enough to stay with us for hours. It was totally fascinating.


You’ve worked with some very interesting people while making your documentaries and photographs. Who are the three people that have impressed you most?

I can’t keep it to three, unfortunately!

Recently Professor Charles Griffiths, a marine biologist from the University of Cape Town, has made a big difference to my life. He mentored me, and I was able to tap into his 40-50 years of studying these tidal animals in a very focused way.

He’s probably the grand master in his field, and has discovered more than a hundred species. His observation skills are phenomenal. Every time I go out I’m amazed at what detail he can see.

Another amazing person is Dr. Sylvia Earle. She’s probably the most famous marine biologist alive. She’s 79 years old, yet travels 300 days a year, talking about conservation and her love of the ocean.

She’s very busy and committed to her work, but when I met her, she focused her attention on me for a few minutes and it made a huge difference. Because of her, I stopped eating predator fish from that day onwards. I won’t eat fish.

Another person would be my wife Swati, who is one of Asia’s top environmental journalists and specialises in tiger conservation. She has taught me how to love and connect with individual animals at a deep level. I obviously spend a lot of time with her, and I see what joy she’s got out of her relationships with individual animals, especially our cats at home!

At one stage, I would have never had a cat. I’m always worried about them killing birds, but now I’ve got this tremendous bond with our cat, and it makes a huge difference to my life.


What about some of the people you’ve made documentaries about?

Yes, going further back, those incredible Bushmen from our documentary The Great Dance. Especially !Nqate Xqamxebe. They made a massive impact, and taught me about the original human lifestyle and what it’s like to live wild.

And then there’s Jon Young in the USA. He’s the father of the Wilderness Awareness School. He’s a master tracker, trained by Apache scouts from nine years old. Here’s a guy that’s lived a similar life to the original native Americans, but because he’s had a Western education, he can translate a lot of the knowledge for you.

Someone else that has really impressed me is Alwyn Myburgh, a guide in Botswana who is a master of tracking with sound. He uses bird and antelope sounds to track predators like lions and leopards over a distance of up to 3 kms.

Finally, my son Tom. He’s been diving every weekend with me for years. He dives with total calmness, with not the tiniest bit of fear, even when big sharks four times his size approach him. It’s very powerful. Wild animals react very differently to children. They can approach things that adults wouldn’t be able to.


Damon (left) and Craig Foster with !Nqate Xqamxebe in the Central Kalahari of Botswana, during filming of The Great Dance. (Copyright Craig Foster)

Damon (left) and Craig Foster with !Nqate Xqamxebe in the Central Kalahari of Botswana, during filming of The Great Dance. (Copyright Craig Foster)

What do you love about the concept of African wilderness, especially the ocean?

When I immerse myself in these ocean waters here, I feel part of the incredible matrix of life.

First you learn as many of the species as you can, then you start learning their behaviours. Then you start to see those behaviours yourself and all the connections with all the animals.

These relationships and interactions start opening neural networks in your brain that were previously dead, and you start to be almost inseparable from the animals in some ways. You still feel separate because you live in a house and drive a car of course, and we have this strange life we have to live, but you start feeling less of a separation and that to me is the ultimate process.

We need to feel like we’re connected to nature – not separate – and that’s why wilderness is so important. It’s the gateway to a deep fulfillment.


Last question. The general state of the environment is abysmal. The populations of wild animals, both on land and in oceans are plummeting. What has to be done if they’re going to survive in any great number in the next century?

It’s overwhelming. We’re walking blindfolded through the apocalypse which we’ve created, where there’s a sixth great extinction unfolding. People are just blind to that. If you think too much about it, you’ll get depressed.

A lot of fish species, crayfish and abalone are being hammered right down to 5% or less of their original numbers.

What we need to do is spread the word of love and care for nature. People like Dr. Sylvia Earle and professor Tony Ribbink here in South Africa have started the Hope Spot program, where groups of local people who love their local coastline actively try to promote the conservation and care of it.

As an example, we took 12 of the park rangers at Table Mountain National Park diving in the ocean. This was the idea of well-known South African free diver Hanli Prinsloo. A few of the rangers couldn’t swim that well; a lot of them hadn’t ever been diving. We took them in, and showed them some of incredible animals in the shallows.

Seven of them are now diving in the kelp forest regularly and loving it. They’re going to protect it now, because they are connected to it on a personal level, so that’s a very fast turnaround. That’s unusual however.

If you create a guardianship of the local populations towards an environment, that probably gives it the greatest chance of survival. If there’s no sense of ownership, why would you look after it?

There also has to be a massive paradigm shift. Maybe that will only happen when the air is unbreathable or the water is undrinkable.

I think we need to decentralise a lot of processes, so we need to grow our own food, for instance. This whole notion of mad consumerism and corporate greed is totally unsustainable. The capitalistic model needs to change drastically.

It seems impossible, but apartheid collapsed, and it seemed that was never going to change. Huge things have happened in a short time so I think there is hope.

Perhaps the biggest issue, along with excessive consumption, is human overpopulation. No one ever wants to speak about it, but I think it’s of utmost importance.

Nobody wants to say it but we need to limit the numbers of people on the planet. Obviously 50 people in Africa consume the same as one person in the Western countries, so you’ve got to take that into account, but it’s going to take a big shift to make any serious change.

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