Whale of a tale coming to V.H.

Film screening captures a Cape Cod lobsterman’s adventure getting swallowed by a whale.

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On Sunday afternoon, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center will show “In the Whale,” a documentary about the international news story of lobsterman Michael Packard, who was caught in a humpback whale’s mouth. Filmmaker David Abel will field questions after the film.

In summer 2021, 56-year-old Michael Packard of Cape Cod, the region’s last remaining lobster diver, was gathering lobster from the seabed. On Packard’s second dive, several feet above the bottom, he found himself gathered into the mouth of a humpback whale. Packard struggled, the humpback struggled, and then Packard was released, surfaced, and pulled aboard by his crew. Soon after, he was admitted to Cape Cod Hospital, with a broken leg.

While Packard was in the whale’s mouth for under a minute, he did have time to consider the family he nearly left behind. And just one week later, Packard was onstage, sitting in a prop whale mouth, for an interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” 

“In the Whale” shows Packard’s life and career — which includes a deadly plane crash — Packard’s exceedingly rare moment inside the whale, and the personal impact of becoming a major news story.

At the time of Packard’s whale encounter in 2021, journalist and documentarian David Abel had just the experience and opportunity to investigate and tell the story. Abel, a longtime Boston resident, has reported environmental topics for years for the Boston Globe.

During the pandemic, Abel was also living on the outer Cape, and he had just finished a documentary on North Atlantic right whales. Before that, he had released a film on lobstermen. 

“I had spent a lot of time writing about marine mammals for the Globe,” Abel says. “Given that I had made a film about whales and lobstermen, given that there was a collision about a whale and a lobsterman, I knew that that was a story that I was quite interested in, and perhaps uniquely situated to tell.”

Abel recalls that at first, he was unsure the event had happened at all. “I was actually on Cape Cod when Packard’s experience with the whale occurred, and I was asked by my editors to report the story. And like a lot of people at the time, my editors were quite dubious about this story, as I was,” Abel says. “I spoke to Michael’s mother, I spoke to his sisters, I spoke to the fishermen who pulled him out of the water. I also got the 911 recordings. And in short, I actually had to go back to my editors and tell them that I thought the story was true.”

The next day, the Globe published Abel’s coverage, with the headline, “This fish story isn’t hard to swallow.”

Abel kept in touch with Packard afterward, getting to know the diver and his stories.

At the start of the process for “In the Whale,” Abel had to determine what was still unsaid about Packard’s run-in. “There had been so much about Michael’s story and his experience with the whale that had been in the news, all over the world. And what I really wanted to see was how a reclusive fisherman like Michael — someone who spends most of his time alone at sea, underwater — how being thrust into the international limelight … would affect him as that limelight receded. And what would be the reverberation of that experience throughout his life?”

Much of the film shows Packard’s personal character, and his struggles. “I see this as a love story,” Abel says. “It’s a story about a fisherman’s love for the sea, a father’s love for his kids, a son’s love for his mother, and how that love got [Packard] through one of the most harrowing experiences that a human being could possibly have, which is being engulfed in the mouth of another creature. And how that love has gotten him through the other great challenge that he experiences, which is depression.”

Abel says that the film’s title reflects this in two ways. “One is the literal meaning … the other is the more figurative meaning of being in the whale of depression.”

According to Abel, Packard is still diving; he had one of his best years last summer. Packard is also preparing to transition into his old age, which the film explores.

The filming in itself was a learning experience for Abel, who as the cinematographer filmed underwater for the first time. “I’ve been a diver for many years, but I have never been diving in waters where there are … lots of great white sharks,” he says. “Going diving, in a place where you just have to turn on your phone to see where the latest shark sighting was, was definitely unnerving and frightening.”

“In the Whale” first premiered in October at the New Hampshire Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice award. Abel says that the film has been selling out screenings recently. “I couldn’t be more thrilled with how people have received it,” he says.

Abel adds that the film will continue to show at festivals and independent theaters before moving on to wider distribution.

Though no one is at all likely to experience what Packard did, Abel says that whale encounters generally might become more common: “The reality is that as certain whale species become more abundant, and they rebound after whaling, and more people are operating further from shore … the more interaction there is likely to be with whales.”