‘In the Whale’ Documentary Tells a Tall but True Tale

Award-winning reporter and documentary filmmaker David Abel is bringing one of his latest productions to Huntington.

“In the Whale,” which premiered at the New Hampshire Film Festival last fall, is scheduled to be screened at Cinema Arts Centre on Friday.

The film focuses on the real-life experiences of commercial lobster diver Michael Packard. In June 2021, the then 56-year-old was swallowed by a humpback whale while performing a routine dive off the coast of Cape Cod. He was trapped within the whale’s mouth for 30 seconds before being spat out.

Packard survived to tell the tale after being saved by longtime friend Josiah Mayo and another fisherman.

“It’s a biblical story,” Abel said. “We are billing it as the greatest true fish story ever told.”

As an environmental reporter for The Boston Globe, Abel was one of the many journalists who covered the story around the time when it was making national headlines.

“There was a fair amount of skepticism about [Packard’s] story,” he said. “I did what any reporter would do and tried to interview as many people as I possibly could.”

The reporting and filmmaking process for “In the Whale” was completed over two years. In addition to conducting interviews with Packard and his family, Abel took on new experiences in film such as shooting video underwater.

“That was a particularly nerve-wracking experience,” he said. “It’s quite well-known that these waters are frequently inhabited by great white sharks. I was definitely nervous diving in waters where Michael has had close encounters with great white sharks.”

With experience as both a reporter and a filmmaker, Abel says that jumping between the two roles comes with a lot of the same responsibilities.

“The goals are pretty much the same: to tell a story with nuance and in a compelling way,” he said. “Obviously the facts are vital. They are just different mediums in telling stories in different kinds of ways to try and make them come alive.”

Abel’s experience as an environmental reporter helped him capture the story that is conveyed throughout “In the Whale.” This also includes a history with making other films with documentarian Andy Laub.

“Entangled,” which was nominated for a national Emmy award in 2022, centered around the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Another film titled “Lobster War” detailed the conflict between the United States and Canada over claims to a body of water that has an increasing population of lobsters. Both films discuss climate change and its impact on marine life.

“It was through prior reporting that led me to [In the Whale’s] story,” Abel said. “Although this is not a story about climate change or the environment as much as it is about one man’s survival story.”

“In the Whale” has won multiple awards since its premiere, including the Audience Choice Award at the New Hampshire Film Festival and earned the title of Best New England Film at the Mystic Film Festival.

“It’s been incredibly gratifying to see the response to this film,” Abel said. “We’re excited to bring it to New York for the first time and hope that there will be a similar kind of reception to the film on Long Island and elsewhere.”

Abel said that he hopes audiences will resonate with the film’s recurring themes, which he describes as a love story.

“It’s about a fisherman’s love for the sea,” Abel said. “It’s about a father’s love for his kids and about a son’s love for his mother. It’s that love, ultimately, that gets him through the most harrowing experience that you could possibly imagine.”

Tickets for Friday’s screening of “In the Whale” with David Abel appearing in person at Cinema Arts Centre are on sale now at a price of $18 for the public and $12 for members.

Anthony Johnson is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.


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