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Patrick Dykstra: The Young Man and the Sea

Talking exclusively to Debonair in The Maldives, Blue Planet cameraman Patrick Dykstra says looking after the planet is simple: stop procreating

The world’s population is out of control. And this isn’t going to be a popular answer, but having a child is, I think, one of the most selfish things humans can do. - Patrick Dykstra

Choppy. Crinkled. Brooding. The sea looked like the face of a man holding down a deep-rooted anxiety. Smokey clouds rolled across the horizon. And the wind blew with a gusto that suggested Aeolus was in high spirits.

“The weather is never this bad,” my guide says on arrival at the Coco Bodu Hithi Resort in The Maldives.

By “bad”, she expresses the idea that these crystal turquoise waters, cyan sky and the profuse natural beauty that surrounds the island tend to look better than today. You would accept any deal in life this “bad”.

The Bodu Hithi island, one of the 1,190 islands (at last count) of the Maldives, is like a desktop screensaver. The sort of faraway, dreamed of place you long to be when you’re staring at your merciless computer screen counting down the days to annual leave.

I’m here to meet and dive with Patrick Dykstra, one of the deep-sea diving cameramen who worked on Blue Planet 2 and captured jaw-dropping footage of whales — Humpbacks, Orcas and the biggest of them all, the Blue Whale.

The world’s population is out of control. And this isn’t going to be a popular answer, but having a child is, I think, one of the most selfish things humans can do. - Patrick Dykstra

Though not a household name like Sir David Attenborough (the men behind the camera seldom get the limelight of those in front of the lens), Dykstra made a splash on TV when he was featured on ABC News while filming the BBC wildlife documentary.

While Dykstra was concentrating on a humpback whale in his direct field of vision, a second, nearby humpback from his peripherals suddenly shot towards him with its mouth fully open.

When I ask the Denver-born lawyer-turned-cameraman about the heart-in-mouth moment he says, “It was pretty crazy. I didn’t really have time to think about what was happening, but as he burst towards the surface to feed, his mouth was less than a meter away from me. He came up, swallowed a heap of herring and then as he came crashing down, he landed on my thigh — which didn’t hurt as much as you’d think, but it was still pretty crazy.”

A full-grown Humpback weighs up to 30,000 kilograms. “Pretty crazy” is somewhat of an understatement.

But, as I came to learn about Dysktra over the course of two days, understatement and a laissez-faire attitude that makes him appear like he’s floating in an ocean through life, is his natural predisposition.

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“I’ve thought about it quite a bit since,” Dykstra continues, noticing the obvious amazement in his audience’s collective countenance. “I’m not sure what would’ve been better — being swallowed whole, or caught in those toothbrush-like teeth.

“I don’t actually know if whales have a gag reflex, so I guess it would’ve been better for me to end up in the mouth so I could’ve tried to fight my way out, rather than rely on this enormous beast puking me up. Either way, though, it would’ve been quite a bad scenario.”

There’s sarcasm in his voice, but also a twinkle in his eye that shows he’s not just embellishing a good story — he’s clearly mulled over his chances of survival if he’d become a 21st century Jonah. Regardless, I’m hooked. Fascinated by this diminutive 37-year-old man who is at home in the ocean swimming with giants.

Dykstra has been brought out to the Coco Bodu Hithi Resort by the management team as part of a package that diving-enthusiast holidaymakers can include in their Maldivian escape.

He offers a seminar on how to improve your underwater camera skills with anything from a GoPro to the highly technical four-inch lenses he uses on his $10,000 plus camera. And from there, he takes groups out to the island’s surrounding house reef to put those tips (which you can read in full here) into practice.

Big Fish

Dysktra’s pathway into wildlife filming is a fascinating one and shares parallels with Santiago’s pursuit of his big fish in Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

A lawyer by training and profession, he ditched the courtroom for the ocean only five years ago after he’d become financially stable enough to pursue his dream job of filming wild animals.

It was his ten-year pursuit of the Blue Whale — which he finally achieved in Sri Lanka five years ago — that confirmed he wanted this to be his job.

He’s aware that not everyone is fortunate enough to switch to a competitive field and be working on blue chip projects like Blue Planet.

“I’m definitely the envy of a lot of guys who’ve been working — some as apprentices and understudies for ten years — in the industry a long time and not got the opportunity to do what I’ve done, just four years into it,” he says.

Dykstra got his big break by effectively pioneering drone filming of wildlife before drones were in commercial use. As a hobby, he would take drones out and film various animals from bird’s eye views using the then new remote technology. His vimeo clips were picked up by researchers who needed videographers around the globe, and the rest has been a sailing success.

Diving with Dykstra

When we go diving, the face of the Indian Ocean wears a different expression from the first day here. Calm, smooth and motionless. Like a pond after the last ripples from a heavy rainfall have ceased to fall and swell.

We head out to Turtle Point, so named because, unsurprisingly this is where the Olive Ridleys tend to chill out and clean the coral.

As we head out from the resort to the house reef, Dykstra casually drops into conversation that, if we’re lucky, we might catch up with some reef sharks. My eyes widen.

“We’re fine, man,” he reassures me with a smile. “When there’s a possibility of sharks, I always take a look around and make sure I’m not going to be the slowest swimmer. If there’s someone with a lifejacket on,” here he nods at a couple wearing life jackets, “I know I’m good. I’m not going to be eaten today.”

It’s worth noting that reef sharks are harmless and docile around humans.

The dive itself is a remarkable experience. An abundance of rainbow fish, parrotfish, clownfish and five (I counted) Olive Ridley turtles swoosh and swish through the crystal waters in a ritual dance of freedom. And having been given an idiot-proof run through of how to film marine life, frame shots and leave space for the creatures to swim into, I manage to get some (praised) footage of an Olive Ridley gliding towards the surface, saying hello to the camera and somersaulting off into the distance.

Population out of control

Yet for all the natural beauty and the marine life there’s a shadow that hangs over the island like some enormous fate: Sustainability is a topic I’m keen to discuss with Patrick and the hotel staff in more detail.

When I catch up with Dykstra after dinner, the Boduberu native dance is in full, vibrant flow in the background, so we sit down in Coco’s Latitude rooftop wine bar and restaurant — away from the immediate clamour of the celebratory ritual.

It’s 10pm by now, and what’s striking is that for a man who travels 300 days a year, his energy levels are tireless. It may as well be 10am for all his enthusiasm gives away. His relentless schedule (he’s off to Norway to film polar bears in a week for another high-profile nature documentary, coming soon) also gives him the aura of someone totally at ease with his place on the planet: a topic I’m keen to discuss — our place on the Planet he’s seen more of than most.

“So, how should we go about looking after our little blue rock?” I ask, after some preliminary preamble. I’m expecting a recycle-and-stop-using-deodorant answer. But I don’t get that response. At all.

“The world’s population is out of control. And I know this isn’t going to be a popular answer, but I’ve thought about it a lot, and having a child is, I think, one of the most selfish things we, as humans, can do.

“Having more kids, populating the planet with more mouths to feed and use plastics is doing nothing to help sustain the planet, on that there can be no argument. So what we ultimately have to do is find a way to limit the number of people on the planet.”

He can see I’m taken aback by his candour. His eyes sparkle with a passion that only emerges when he talks about whales and marine life.

“We can say all this stuff like recycle and stop using straws, of course we can; that will help. But we are way beyond that point now — to the point where we have seven billion people and 10,000 Blue Whales. Seven billion people and a few hundred snow leopards — there were thousands before. Seven billion people and zero northern white rhinos.

“There’s a direct correlation: with every increase in the human population, there’s a decrease in the animal population. So we’re at the point where, ethically, I think we have to ask ourselves when is it enough, and what do we do about it?”

He’s in full flow, deploying rhetorical devices, and speaking with a fervor that comes from more than a decade of being the closest anyone can get to wild animals in their natural habitats.

“We could adopt. But generally, we choose not to. Why? Because we are so vain, that we have to have something that is ours. Something that looks like us, because we’re so amazing. What’s up with that?”

He’s also keen to add that having a Commander in Chief who denounces the facts of climate change emphasises the deep-rooted problems we face with making wholesale changes to the way we treat the planet.

Dykstra’s impassioned renunciation of the human race’s natural proclivity to procreate is one answer. As for preserving the Maldives’ ecology specifically, I turn to Dr. Sonia Valladares, Coco’s on-island marine biologist.

“When I first got here in 2016, I could already see that a lot of the coral was dying because of the bleaching disaster, and it’s happening across the Maldives. Nature will recover, but it’s important that we help it to recover by being more eco-friendly, which is something we educate our guests on while they stay with us,” she says.

For starters, when Valladares leads diving sessions, she briefs them all on the necessity of sustainable living. “We’re aiming to get rid of all plastics from the island within the next year,” she adds. “From straws to coffee pods, these are little changes that can make a big difference.”

Coco has also put in place a range of measures to ensure resources are used as efficiently as possible. In each room, a toy starfish needs to be placed on the bed to signal if guests want the sheets changing, if they don’t that’s precious energy that can be saved. Likewise with towels.

Coco has also signed up to the Parley initiative whereby the resorts send all their plastics away where they can be put into practical use. One offshoot of the Parley initiative has seen Adidas produce produce an eco-friendly sneaker from plastics recovered from Maldivian beaches and coastal communities.

And on a broader scale, there’s a ban on commercial fishing of yellow fin tuna and all shark fishing. One of the Archipelago’s main sources of export trade revenue comes from the abundant tuna in its waters, caught the island insists by pole and line fishing method, and not any larger scale commercial means.

But the initiatives and the laws in place don’t stop commercial operations from illegally entering the Maldivian waters and using purse-seine nets to trap large numbers of fish, within which the ‘bycatch’ (the capture of unwanted species) is a deal greater. It’s presents a big problem in the maintenance of a balanced ecosystem of the archipelagos.

“We’re never really going to understand our role on the planet until we get close to these incredible creatures,” Dykstra says towards the end of our conversation. “Diving, snorkeling, safari-ing — these kind of opportunities that allow us to get as close as possible to nature have to be taken. It’s the only way we’ll begin to understand the importance of taking care of the planet.”

Looking out across the paradisiacal Maldivian horizon, Dykstra’s words hold a lasting gravitas. Destinations like the Maldives are only here because Mother Nature allows it to be. And if they are to continue to be, it is our responsibility to take care of Her in return.

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