He's the One Who Got Away: New Documentary Tells the Ultimate Fish Story - 27 East

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He’s the One Who Got Away: New Documentary Tells the Ultimate Fish Story

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Lobsterman Michael Packard gets ready to dive in a scene from David Abel's documentary

Lobsterman Michael Packard gets ready to dive in a scene from David Abel's documentary "In The Whale." COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

Lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary

Lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary "In The Whale." COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

Lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary

Lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary "In The Whale." COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard in a still from David Abel's new documentary "In The Whale." COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard and his boat in a scene from David Abel's new documentary

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard and his boat in a scene from David Abel's new documentary "In The Whale." COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard in the jaws of a model humpback whale in a still from David Abel's new documentary

Diving lobsterman Michael Packard in the jaws of a model humpback whale in a still from David Abel's new documentary "In The Whale." The model was made for Packard's appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show and standing at left is Josiah Mayo, Packard's mate on his lobster boat. COURTESY THE FILMMAKER

authorAnnette Hinkle on Feb 27, 2024

As a commercial fisherman based in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Michael Packard is accustomed to bringing home the bounty of Cape Cod’s waters. One of the few remaining (if not the very last) of the area’s diving lobstermen, instead of setting traps, Packard dons a wet suit, mask, fins and oxygen tanks to pursue his quarry by hand where it lives on the ocean floor.

But in June 2021, there was a dramatic reversal of fortune when Packard, the predator, became Packard, the prey, as he was hunting for lobsters. That’s when a humpback whale came upon the fisherman and scooped him up in its massive jaws. Packard’s world suddenly turned pitch black as the whale closed its mouth around him. From the deck of Packard’s boat, the Ja’n J, Josiah Mayo, his first mate and friend, had no idea what had happened — until the moment he saw Packard get spat out by the whale and launched through the air. Though he had been inside the whale for roughly 30 seconds, for Packard, it must have felt like an eternity.

Packard’s trip inside the whale made international news. To many, it sounded like an unbelievable fish story, and the modern day Jonah had serious doubters and detractors. But Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and filmmaker David Abel was not one of them. He believed Packard, and in his story, which he wrote for The Boston Globe, he also saw the makings of a documentary film.

“In the Whale,” Abel’s new documentary, recounts the fantastical events surrounding Michael Packard on that June day in 2021. But the documentary also delves into the humble seafaring life of the lobsterman and his family, detailing what they had been through, both before and since that fateful day. “In the Whale” will have its Long Island premiere at 7 p.m. this Saturday at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Abel, a New York native, will be on hand to take part in a Q&A and discussion following the screening.

Abel has been a reporter for 25 years at The Boston Globe, where he covers climate change and environmental issues. Stories on New England’s fisheries, like the one about Michael Packard, are also firmly part of his beat. But in recent years, Abel has also become an accomplished filmmaker, and he explained in a recent interview how that part of his career came into focus.

“The newspaper industry has transformed in the past 20 years. Our once purely pulp product became far more multimedia, and I was encouraged to use the Flip video camera way back when — they were the precursors to cellphone video,” Abel explained. “I got the taste for it. Then we hired a video journalist and I was amazed to see what she could do.”

Then a decade or so ago, Abel received a fellowship from the Nieman Foundation, which granted him a year to study anything he liked at Harvard University.

“I was very lucky to talk my way into an intro film class learning the grammar of documentary filmmaking,” Abel said. “For the final project for that class, I was working on a short film about the first little person to run the Boston Marathon.”

In compiling footage for his project, Abel spent the months leading up to the race filming his subject as she was preparing for the run. On race day, however, he didn’t have the right credentials to stand at the finish line, so instead found another vantage point nearby from which to capture his running subject.

“I was still learning to use a video camera and taking in this beautiful scene of runners taking their final steps when all a sudden, a bomb exploded 20 steps from where I was standing,” said Abel, who had inadvertently captured the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings on his camera.

Instead of writing a story for The Globe about one small woman’s triumphant running of the marathon, Abel found himself calling in the first story of the Boston bombings.

“If you see the aftermath footage, you’ll probably see the footage I shot that day,” said Abel, who subsequently directed and produced two films about the Boston Marathon bombings, and has since gone on to make several more environmental documentaries.

“My films have been an outgrowth of my work as a reporter where I have covered climate change and environmental issues at The Globe,” said Abel, who is also a professor of journalism at Boston University. “My film ideas have come from my reporting, but they are totally independent projects.”

His 2020 film, “Entangled,” about the race to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction, won a Jackson Wild award, aka the Oscar of nature films. He also co-directed and produced “Sacred Cod,” a film about the collapse of New England’s cod fishery, which was broadcast on the Discovery Channel in 2017. His other documentaries include “Lobster War,” a film that delves into the conflict taking place in the Gulf of Maine between Canada and the United States as the lucrative lobster population moves north to escape warmer waters, and “Gladesmen: The Last of the Sawgrass Cowboys,” a film about the federal government’s ban on airboats in the Florida Everglades. Another of Abel’s new films, “Inundation District,” (this one produced by The Boston Globe) premiered last fall and it explores Boston’s ill-fated decision to spend billions of dollars to erect a series of new buildings on landfill in its seaport district with no consideration for the effects of climate change.

When it comes to the reporting on Michael Packard’s story, while many news outlets ran attention-grabbing headlines that claimed the fisherman was swallowed by a whale, in truth, there is no physical way that could happen, as a humpback whale’s throat is not nearly large enough to swallow a full grown human. But there are two other terrible ways it could have ended, and in the middle of it all, Packard worried about them both. He could have been held captive in the whale’s mouth until the oxygen in his tanks ran out, or the whale could have panicked and descended with Packard still inside to an ocean depth that no human could survive. In the end, Packard was lucky, and the whale, realizing it had bitten off more than it could chew, literally, thrashed its head and ejected Packard into the air at the surface. The fisherman escaped with facial lacerations, some broken bones and a story that captivated the world.

“All of a sudden, there was a whale and a lobsterman colliding, that was something of interest to me and in my wheelhouse,” Abel said. “I was immediately interested in learning more about the story, and my editors asked me to look into what happened. Like a lot of people, they believed that the story as widely reported was bullshit. They thought it was sketchy.

“I think everyone was incredulous that this was real. I did what any journalist would do. I interviewed his mom, his sisters, the fisherman who pulled him out of the water,” Abel said. “I interviewed Michael and got the 911 tapes. I had to say to my editors, ‘I’m sorry, but I believe his story.’ It was on the front page of The Globe.”

But when it came to the idea of making a feature-length documentary about the incident, at first Abel was skeptical that there was more to say, especially since Packard’s story was shared all over the world. So he dug a little deeper.

“Michael invited me to come out with him diving. I got to see there was a far more complex and intriguing character,” Abel noted. “My hope was to spend enough time with him to tell the story of that most frightening thing — being engulfed in the mouth of another species — that thrust this otherwise reclusive fisherman into the international spotlight.

“How would it affect someone like him? I wanted to see him through the seasons and get to know him with enough time. I think the film does this.”

Part of what “In the Whale” does is explore the story of Packard’s difficult childhood. His father abandoned the family when he was just 10, and that same year, his older brother disappeared while hiking with his girlfriend on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. Neither of them were ever found.

Packard’s mother, Anne Packard, turned to selling paintings to support the family and has since become a renowned and successful artist. She has offered to pay her son the same salary he earns through lobster fishing if he will give it up and stay on land. So far, he’s refused. Years before he met the whale, Packard, who is now in his late 50s, had an uncanny number of previous brushes with death. As a 12-year-old, while exploring a small deserted island in Cape Cod, he was stranded when his boat drifted out to sea. He was rescued by a passing boater who happened to see him swimming futilely in the fading light trying to catch his boat. Then in 2001 while running a charter fishing business in Costa Rica, Packard survived a plane crash in the jungle that killed three others on board.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that someone like Packard, who defied death twice before, would live dangerously as that unusual breed of lobsterman who dives for his catch.

“There had been more of them, but Michael is the last of a small number of very brave and independent-minded, unique guys who made a living as commercial lobster divers,” Abel explained, noting that Paul Tasha, the only other lobster diver left in Provincetown, died just last month at the age of 71. “It’s not the way most people catch lobsters. They set traps, but Michael just never wanted any part of it. The bottom line is, the other folks decided that it had become too dangerous as the number of great white sharks proliferated around the coast. Michael is the only guy left doing it.”

Because of his connection to the fisheries on Cape Cod through previous films and newspaper stories, Abel happened to know some of the players involved in the Michael Packard story, including Stormy Mayo, a whale scientist and the father of Josiah Mayo, Packard’s friend and first mate.

“Stormy was one of the main characters in ‘Entangled,’ and he is a very well-known pioneering right whale scientist who has written the book on how to disentangle great whales from fishing gear,” Abel explained. “I got to know Josiah while making that last film. When I heard what happened, I was immediately in touch and he connected me with Michael.”

Gaining the trust of his subjects and getting them to open up is a skill that Abel has mastered as a journalist, and he’s able to do it in his films largely because he doesn’t overwhelm them with a massive crew.

“It’s just me. I shoot with a Sony A7, a small mirrorless camera that is relatively less in-your-face compared to some cinema cameras,” Abel explained. “Michael was perhaps the easiest subject I’ve ever had to cover in the sense he is completely unfiltered, unguarded, and it didn’t take a lot to make it feel natural.

“I was incredibly grateful and fortunate that he made the time and allowed me in his orbit.”

Last June, the people of Provincetown had the opportunity to be among the first to see Abel’s film about their very famous neighbor, Michael Packard.

“We had our first public screening as a work in progress. A few hundred of his neighbors and friends were there,” Abel said. “It was an amazing response. Blanche, my wife, described it as one of the best days of my life.”

Now, the film is complete, and it’s time for the rest of the world to see Michael Packard’s unbelievable story for themselves.

“In the Whale,” screens on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach. A Q&A with filmmaker David Abel follows. Tickets are $23 at whbpac.org or 631-288-1500.

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