“Imagine an alien that can float through space, with a giant brain shaped like a donut, eight arms growing out of its head, and 3 hearts pumping blue blood. This alien…lives right here on earth…it can hypnotize its prey…or even…become invisible.” — Kings of Camouflage, NOVA
One of my earliest questions as a stay at home dad was, “What do you do when the weather sucks?” I always found it to be a little easier being a parent when it was pleasant outside. We’d walk to a park, she’d take over the park, then the adjacent benches, then the surrounding woods, then it was bedtime. The first week it rained for three straight days I thought: “No, this can’t be right. How does anyone survive this?”
The answer: watch television, obviously! But if you’re like us and feel bad letting your child be raised entirely by Phineas and Ferb, you want some of that television to teach them something. Fortunately, since long before we had a kid, we would unwind with some quality cannabis and a quality documentary, so we know what’s good to watch.
Documentaries can be tricky though. If it doesn’t excite our child right away she wants nothing to do with it for the rest of eternity. But when our daughter finds something she loves, she devotes everything she has to it. It’s not enough to admire the Mattisse cutouts at the MoMA; she wants to learn the process and make a thousand of her own. Kids are like this: they often decide instantly, almost instinctively, the things they will throw themselves into, and then they take it to eleven. So, first impressions are important. The right subject can keep her busy for days, and busy for days is what we want her to be.
Not that a cuttlefish needs a fancy intro, but a floating Earth alien with three hearts, blue blood, eight arms, and a donut brain had our little scientist locked in immediately.
Originally released on PBS as a NOVA special way back in 2007, Kings of Camouflage is an expansion of an earlier documentary, The Brainy Bunch. What really makes a nature film distinctive aren’t the talking heads or even the facts they convey, but the footage of the animal in its natural habitat, just doing its thing. The cuttlefish’s thing? It can change shape, size, and color. NOVA spends plenty of footage exploring a variety of different species, from the three-foot-long Giant to the tiny, walking-along-the-mud Flamboyant Cuttlefish, and scientists’ voiceovers describe what’s happening on the screen in a way that never feels like a lecture. Even without the detailed technical explanations, though, the visuals are enough to keep most anyone interested.
Every time I’ve shown a clip from this to someone who wasn’t familiar with the creature, they were mesmerized. The first time I saw the movie, I was convinced I wasn’t watching something natural, that it had to be computer enhanced. The cuttlefish’s tendency to transform is impressive enough, but when it starts flashing and glowing? Why waste words? Just go look.
Thanks in part to NOVA’s narration, but mostly due to a cuttlefish’s ability to alter the tone and texture of its skin, all while lighting up, Kings of Camouflage has provided a solution for the most challenging of low-grade parental nightmares:
For at least 24 hours we could answer the “I don’t have anything to doooooooo!” wail with: “You could draw a picture of a cuttlefish.”
Relevant Parenting Info:
- Number of times in 50 minutes my daughter said some variation of “that is so cool”: 7
- Number of times she said “that is so weird” (in some ways better than cool): 5
- Number of activities generated from watching the documentary: 4, so far. Drawing cuttlefish came first, then we wrote a poem about cuttlefish, then a letter to a friend about cuttlefish, and now we are exploring ways to create our own three-dimensional cuttlefish, perhaps out of felt and plastic bags. Between watching the documentary, drawing, writing, and planning projects we’ve already filled a full school day. (We are currently considering a strongly worded letter to the Wild Kratts, asking them why they haven’t done an episode entirely devoted to cuttlefish.)
- Age Appropriate Stuff: Around the 22-minute mark they dive into the mating habits of the Giant Cuttlefish. It’s pretty amazing – not just because of the tongue-in-cheek narration about how “the waters are heating up” – but if your kid is like ours you should be prepared to answer a few questions. Towards the end of the program they show cuttlefish being sold in markets and one being eaten by a dolphin. None of it was too much for our seven-year-old, but we think you should watch anything you plan on showing your kids without them first. (We also think even if you don’t have kids you should get some Blue Dream and watch this movie as soon as you can.)
- Where can you get it: If you like supporting PBS and are very patient, you can order it here:
Then, once you’ve supported your local PBS station, and don’t want to wait for your hard copy to arrive because your child has already climbed to the top of all the doorframes in your house, or you don’t have the money to spare, you can just watch the video here for free: