A Close Encounter of the Cetacean Kind - 27 East

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A Close Encounter of the Cetacean Kind

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A scene from

A scene from "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

Patrick Dykstra, who for 20 years has dedicated his life to traveling the globe, swimming with and attempting to communicate with whales, swimming with a sperm whale in

Patrick Dykstra, who for 20 years has dedicated his life to traveling the globe, swimming with and attempting to communicate with whales, swimming with a sperm whale in "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

A scene from the documentary

A scene from the documentary "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

Patrick Dykstra in the documentary

Patrick Dykstra in the documentary "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

Patrick Dykstra of

Patrick Dykstra of "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

Patrick Dykstra, who for 20 years has dedicated his life to traveling the globe, swimming with and attempting to communicate with whales, in

Patrick Dykstra, who for 20 years has dedicated his life to traveling the globe, swimming with and attempting to communicate with whales, in "Patrick and the Whale." COURTESY PATRICK DYKSTRA

authorAnnette Hinkle on Nov 28, 2022

Among the more than 25 intriguing documentaries that will be screened this weekend as part of the Hamptons Doc Fest (HDF) will be one that explores the timeless relationship of man and beast — specifically, one man, Patrick Dykstra, and one beast, Dolores.

Well, at least Dolores is the name that Dykstra gave the sperm whale when he first encountered her in 2019 off the coast of Dominica in the Caribbean. Though after careful consideration, he thinks it may not have been the name she deserved.

“I named her Dolores because I thought she was an old lady,” explained Dykstra, who has spent the last 20 years circumnavigating the globe to dive with and film whales in their natural habitat. “When we met, she had no teeth, and Dolores is a nice old lady name — no offense to anyone named Dolores.

“But when I saw her the next year, I saw bits of tooth were coming through,” he said. “These rounded nubs that look like teeth are part of the gum structure. And so she’s quite young and in her teens.”

So it may have been that Dolores actually had more of an adolescent crush on Dykstra, if you’re inclined to believe in such things, as she interacted with him in a way no sperm whale ever had before.

“She sought me out whenever I saw her and spent time on the surface,” said Dykstra, who has visited Dolores 15 times or so in the years since their first encounter. “I went back every year, and she would be lifting me up on her head. I thought, ‘Why do whales trust, and should they? What makes her different?’”

The story of Dyskstra and Dolores and the many questions their relationship raises is told in the documentary “Patrick and the Whale,” directed by Mark Fletcher, which HDF will screen on Friday, December 2, at Sag Harbor Cinema.

If the concept of a human bonding with a sea creature is reminiscent of “My Octopus Teacher,” the documentary about a South African man who befriended an octopus, it may be because the film’s executive producer is James Reed, who won an Academy Award for directing that film. He is also a friend of Dykstra’s.

“James and I have a Discovery+ show called ‘Chasing Ocean Giants,’” Dykstra explained. “It’s eight episodes where I travel around and uncover mysteries of the ocean. So James and I have worked together quite a bit.”

Dykstra comes by his knowledge of whales, not as a marine biologist but as a citizen scientist and experienced fan.

Born in Denver, Colorado, he earned his law degree from New York University and worked as a New York City lawyer before leaving the profession to pursue his passion: filming whales in their natural environment around the world.

That was how he first met Reed.

“James wanted to make a blue whale film in Sri Lanka. I’ve done a lot of work with blue whales, and my name came up, and he called me and he said, ‘You know a lot about them,’” recalled Dykstra. “I had recently left my law career and was traveling and photographing whales. I said, ‘I’m in Sri Lanka right now,’ so he flew over, and we got to know each other.”

Though he’s not a trained biologist, by following evidence and exploring his own theories, Dykstra’s ocean explorations in the field have led to discoveries about a number of different whale species.

“When I was first looking for blue whales, you couldn’t Google it. There was no internet. So you’d talk to scientists, go to conferences, find books on the shelf,” said Dykstra. “Marine biology is an investigative process. The way I found blue whales off Sri Lanka is, I realized there was a drop-off off the coast. The next place where there was an upwelling of krill based on the shelf was Antarctica.

“It’s a scientific exercise in finding these things. I have no training. I’m just a former lawyer with no science background. But in Sri Lanka, I got the first footage of a blue whale nursing.

“The fact that you can go into the ocean and capture a world’s first just as a dude is amazing,” he said, “and tells you how much we still need to learn.”

Dykstra notes that he developed a career as an underwater cinematographer largely by accident. It began after he traveled to Norway to investigate and document the presence of killer whales in places they had not been seen before, and put a video of his footage on Vimeo.

“I got a call from the BBC — they have researchers scouring for interesting behavior. Someone called and said they want to buy the footage,” said Dykstra, who ended up working on several episodes of the BBC series “Blue Planet 2,” for which he won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for his cinematography. He now lives in Bristol, U.K., which he notes is the center of the universe for nature films.

“Once you work on a big show like that, you’re in the industry, and it’s such a big show, people go far and wide,” he said. “I got into it by accident. I have no training — I’m just passionate about the work and the ocean and natural environment. The people who I go out with now know more about the camera than I do.”

While whaling as an industry is, thankfully, no longer practiced on the scale it was in the 19th century, when practically all the world’s whale species were wiped out, there are still countries that engage in it commercially. And there are many new and different threats to whales.

“Sperm whales are on the decline in the Caribbean because of us. They’re getting hit by ships, entangled in fishing gear, suffering from ocean pollution,” said Dykstra. “Their infant mortality rate is 50 percent. We’re not shooting them with harpoons, but this a huge mortality.”

Whales can live many decades, so it’s entirely possible there is ancestral knowledge of human hunting and animals have passed down behaviors that encourage their young to avoid encounters with boats or people.

Which makes Dolores’s attraction to Dykstra all the more puzzling — and her interaction with Dykstra raises interesting questions for debate.

“Sperm whales, especially males, are incredibly shy. It’s the same with blue whales and fin whales,” said Dykstra. “All these really big whales are extra shy, because they were hunted. The curious ones are dead.

“The fact is that some of them trust us when they should avoid us,” he added. “With a whale like Dolores, what responsibility does that put on me? They run illegal drugs from South America to the U.S., and what if she puts her head on the wrong boat? What would they do to her? Do you want to be the one who makes this whale curious? It raises lots of ethical issues.”

One of the reasons that Dykstra has returned to Dominica several times to spend time with Dolores is the fact that it is she who initiates the contact, not him.

“There are whales I know and spend time with, but the fact she was so physical was surprising. We know whales can recognize individual people. I don’t know if they like me, but they can recognize me and will swim over to me,” said Dykstra. “It could be every time I go I’m with different people, so I’m familiar and will cause them to come over.”

Despite his long experience with all sorts of whale species, when he had his first physical encounter with Dolores, Dykstra said it took him by surprise.

“That was eye opening. I’d never encountered whales that lift you up and push you and gum you,” he said. “It’s exhilarating, but quite scary. Whales hit each other with their tails, but a playful tap with a tail could kill you — they could love you to death.

“One of her teeth came in, and she was feeling the camera with her mouth. If part of your rash guard got stuck on a nubby tooth, she could dive to the bottom with you attached to her, and your head could explode.”

Of course, the ultimate question is, what is Dolores’s motive in interacting with Dykstra? Is it really love, or is it something else?

“It’s easy to anthropomorphize these things, and people can criticize the film for that, but it’s my lived experience,” he responded. “That’s how we justify the decision of what they were thinking and doing in these behaviors. It’s my interpretation, my opinion — not mainstream science — and I think she’s trying to learn.

“She wants to know what we are and why we are there,” he added. “She’s interested in learning about the world and perhaps wants to show me her world. Mimicking my actions is more about her own curiosity and her environment.”

Which makes sense when one considers how rare it must be for whales to actually see humans up close in their environment, much less have a chance to swim with one.

“They surface every 45 minutes, and only rarely is a human there, so it’s, like, ‘Oh, this is different. Here’s this really poor swimming wildlife,’ or ‘This dolphin is a bad swimmer, and maybe I can help him,’” he said. “It puts a responsibility on me not to poke her or climb on her, drive the boat slow, turn the engine off. And it’s up to me to think that, given how curious and trusting she is, what can we learn from this without abusing her?

“I don’t want to stab her with a tracking device.”

“Patrick and the Whale” will be screened by the Hampton Doc Fest at 5 p.m. on Friday, December 2, at Sag Harbor Cinema. Both director Mark Fletcher and cinematographer Patrick Dykstra will take part in a Q&A led by filmmaker Roger Sherman. Visit hamptonsdocfest.com for tickets and details.

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