When the mind roils like boiling water and traditional methods of soothing do not work, a nature documentary of any sort is just the ticket. Dolphin Reef, a Disneynature documentary released in 2019, narrated by Natalie Portman, and now streaming on Disney+, is the best of the genre: a gentle, non-violent tale about a dolphin named Echo learning how to navigate life in the treacherous ocean. After spending one afternoon watching Echo figure out how to survive the reef, I realized that centering Echo’s narrative in this film was a mistake. The real star of Dolphin Reef is the mantis shrimp, a nervous Nelly of a crustacean that’s concerned mostly with cleaning its part of the reef and being anxious, 24 hours a day.
I hadn’t considered this nature documentary offering, but one evening, a friend texted me a link to this video with little explanation.
“I’m watching a documentary about dolphins on Disney+,” he explained. Though he did not further clarify the connection between this shrimp and the dolphins, I was entranced enough by the peacock mantis shrimp’s arresting visual characteristics and indomitable spirit to watch. The titular dolphin’s antics are engaging enough, but the real star of Dolphin Reef are the other creatures working to keep the reef in working order. The mantis shrimp, a fussy little creature with hoarder tendencies, is the true star of this program, and also, an icon.
“There’s only so much tidying and arranging a mantis shrimp can do,” Natalie Portman intones, before clarifying that the mantis shrimp is clearly just trying to keep its household in order—a fruitless task that this thing will continue to work towards, until death by a predator or otherwise. The bumphead parrotfish, a hideous beast with teeth like the grille of a car and a giant bump on its head, exists in this ecosystem, but it also eats rocks and shits sand. Though this fish is credited for saving the reef, the unseemly habit irritates the gentle mantis shrimp, which really just wants to sweep the foyer, tidy the stacks of junk mail, drink a Gatorade, and go back to bed. Mantis shrimp also have large club-like claws that they use to beat up their enemies or those who would otherwise threaten the sanctity of their tidy home—a relatable trait shared by many capable adults who dream of walloping those who would dare to leave the utensil drawer open after rooting around for a fork.
As I watched the program, I found myself rooting for the mantis shrimp, but especially so when it was faced with its mortal enemy—a cuttlefish, whose skin flickers and pulsates like those fiber optic flower bouquets you can buy on Amazon. “The mantis is transfixed by the pulsating blob of death,” Portman intones over footage of the shrimp, which is paralyzed by the cuttlefish’s mesmerizing light show, but eventually perseveres. As human beings, we are not generally afraid of cuttlefish, though I don’t know what I’d do if I ran into one at the grocery store quietly assessing peanut butter options. But this pulsating blob of death that the mantis shrimp fears pokes its head up in other more intangible ways, which is perhaps the most relatable thing of all.