Imagined being swallowed wholly by a creature with a mouth measuring 8 by 12 feet, a tongue the weight of an elephant, and with some having stomachs containing the remains of no less than 18,000 squids. Would you want to bring a lighter, some candles and start living off squid and krill in the giant’s stomach? Or find a way to the nearest emergency exit quickly? We’re going to find out all about how to survive being swallowed by a whale!
What the whale..
Imagine, a creature the size of an airplane rocking up beside you while out diving or swimming. Sure, chances are slim, but imagine how tiny you would feel besides this giant. Roughly 1000 humans fit into an adult blue whale, but only 500 flies fit into a human. So, to them we’re less than a fly, which can indeed be accidentally swallowed.
The whale family contains a few of the largest animals to ever live on this planet, even outsizing the biggest dinosaurs. And none of these whales are herbivores, making them the biggest killers on earth, with the blue whale eating around 4 tons of krill every day, sucking in numbers of small fish, squids, and crustaceans as well. From this mighty blue whale to the feared killer whale and the master hunting sperm whale, swimmers may want to be careful when these giants are on the hunt. But could one, like Jonah (or Yūnus ibn Matta in the Quran) end up being swallowed entirely by a whale? And what to do if this happens to you?
So, today’s main question is:
Can a human to be swallowed by a whale?
Sorry guys, got to bring it to you straight: it is extremely, extremely unlikely for a whale to swallow us, whether accidentally or not. The main reason is that despite its supersized body parts, the throat of most whale species is way too small to swallow something even nearly as big as a human being. The reason for this is that most whales only live off krill and other small creatures, and they have a great technique to catch them.
The whale dives down, gulps up an enormous amount of krill-containing water, which ends up in a gigantic sack underneath its mouth and body. After this, it pushes the water out, using its baleen to filter out these tiny creatures. Baleen is a semi-soft material, largely made of the same stuff as our hair and nails, which basically acts like a giant inverted filter, retaining the yummie krill on their way out.
As you can see on this picture, this minke whale has no teeth at all, but simply scrapes the krill from its baleen and then swallows them. So yes, they are great hunters, but they don’t eat prey they have to chew, and therefore have no teeth and a very small throat opening, which in case of the blue whale is only about 4 to 8 inches in diameter. In short: even if they wanted to swallow you, they couldn’t, nor could they hunt and eat you. You could end up in the mouth of a baleen whale, but it could never swallow you. Conclusion, Jonah’s whale was not a baleen whale. This brings us to the next question.
Are there whale species physically capable of swallowing a human being?
Now that we’ve introduced baleen whales, we need to structure our whale-knowledge a bit before proceeding. There are about 91 species of whales, of which 15 are baleen whales. This family includes the largest whales we know such as the blue whale, the humpback, and the fin whale, all unable to swallow us wholly.
Our next family, and perhaps more interesting for our investigation, contains the 76 types of toothed whales, divided into ten groups: the sperm whale; the dwarf and pygmy sperm whale; the beluga and narwhal, the beaked whales; the oceanic dolphins; the four river dolphins (each one is placed in a family of their own); and the porpoise family.
To answer our question, we can immediately discard most of these groups, as even the largest dolphin or beluga would in no way be able to house an intact human being inside its body. The same goes for any pygmy or dwarf whale, as they’re only a few times our size. That leaves us with just a few subspecies of toothed whales: the sperm whale and the beaked whale family. Let’s dive in!
The only remaining candidates that would theoretically be large enough in size for their bodies to contain a human being are the sperm whale (40-60 feet), Baird’s beaked whale (36 feet), orcas (28-32 feet), and pilot whales (13-20 feet). Any animal smaller than that may theoretically be able to eat us but couldn’t swallow a human entirely.
We’ll start with the pilot whale, cause honestly, it would be a big gulp for a creature only a few times bigger than us to swallow us up. After looking at the shape of its mouth, we can discard that one too, as it’s a lot more like the mouth of a dolphin, and therefore way too narrow to fit an entire person. This also goes for the much larger, but similarly beaked Baird’s beaked whale. So then: orcas and sperm whales!
Can an orca swallow a human being?
Killer whales, who should really just be called orcas, don’t kill people in nature because we luckily aren’t part of their diet. There are literally no reported cases of orcas killing people, except for orcas in captivity, though even that is rare. An orca named Tilikum, who lived in SeaWorld Orlando and passed away in 2017, is responsible for three out of four ever recorded killings. Despite these few isolated and quite unnatural cases, orcas can’t seem to swallow a human, as also their throat size isn’t big enough, nor are they even interested in eating us, since in all four cases, the bodies were found mutilated, but intact.
So, although orcas could eat us in theory, our Jonah-story doesn’t fly with Willy either.
After this long road of deduction, we’re led to the real question of this whale investigation:
Can a sperm whale swallow a person entirely?
Finally, the sperm whale. Our last candidate. This is by far the largest of the toothed whales, feeds on 30-foot giant squids, is, with its 80-feet in length, bigger than the legendary megalodon, and has four gigantic stomachs to process the 2000 pounds of food it needs every day. Besides squid, every other tentacled creature, as well as sharks and larger fish are on its menu.
The way the sperm whale hunts and catches giant squids is that it grabs them with its blunt, but 6 to 10-inch-long teeth, and then ingests the whole thing by suction. They do not actually chew their food. Since giant squids are larger than we are, and fit through the throat of a sperm whale, we can therefore establish we have our answer!
Yes, the sperm whale could swallow a human being alive.
The only contestant in our investigation is this deep-diving giant, so let’s proceed with our next question:
What happens if you are swallowed by a sperm whale?
The idea of chilling in the stomach of any creature is actually quite ridiculous. Every heard of digestive fluids for example? Anyway, let’s go through it systematically, to show what misery awaits those ingested by a sperm whale.
- Imagine, just swimming around in the hunting grounds of the sperm whale, between 2000 and 8000 feet (indeed quite unlikely), minding your own business, when you suddenly see a massive sperm whale appear from the pitch-black darkness, opening its enormous mouth and grabbing you with its teeth, while sucking you in with great force.
- There’s no way to escape, and you quickly enter its mouth. Although the sperm whale doesn’t really chew, it uses its teeth to crush and disable prey, so if it sees you as a snack, the road probably ends here for you.
- Whether you’re still there to take notes or not, after the teeth treatment you’ll get sucked down into the giant’s dark and slimy throat, where no more oxygen comes through, and where the presence of methane gases increases, which is also bad news, unless your diving gear survived the crushing part.
- However, as you enter the first of the whale’s four stomachs, it starts crushing you, most likely breaking your bones before sending you off towards the next chamber.
- There’s almost zero chance to survive this first crushing chamber, but if you miraculously do, the second chamber awaits, filled with gastric juices that will start burning through your gear, skin, and flesh, slowly and painfully dissolving you.
- Finally, whatever is left of you will have to pass through a whooping 500 feet of intestine before being excreted as sperm whale poo.
Not as glorious as we deep-sea romantics hoped for, right? So how about candle lit fish dinners inside the whale’s stomach while waiting for someone to come rescue us? Hope not to be sacrilegious here, but at least in our current oceans, there’s no creature that could swallow a human being and leave it alive in its stomach for 3 days and 3 nights. Sorry Jonah. Perhaps another great fish that got extinct or a whale without gastric juices?
Anyway, since we’re here to learn how to survive being swallowed by a whale, let’s go ahead with some tips about how to get out of this unlikely but unfortunate circumstance.
What to do when you get swallowed by a whale?
Before even getting into a whale’s mouth, we probably made a mistake or two that could likely have been prevented, unless you really accidentally get swallowed, and you had no idea there was a whale around (they can be surprisingly hard to spot).
Whales are not aggressive towards human beings, and we’re not part of any whale’s diet. If unprovoked, chances of being swallowed by one are close to negligible. So, try not to get swallowed in the first place by keeping a respectful distance.
Another reason to stay away, especially from sperm whales, is that they’re the world’s loudest animals with sonar clicks reaching up to 230 decibels, which is louder than the launch of a spacecraft. Being anywhere near this may kill you, paralyze your muscles, or at least, leave you with a burst eardrum.
But what if…
- If you end up in the giant’s mouth, quickly try to grab onto whatever there is to hold onto. Either the blunt teeth of a sperm whale or the baleen of a humpback.
- Try to swim out before you get sucked inside. Once in, there’s little chance of coming back out in one piece.
- If you do end up inside the throat, the best thing you can do is to create such a fuss inside the mouth, throat or even stomach, that the whale will really want to spit you out. Kick, scratch, bite, stomp and push with all your force. Or, if you have any sharp object or nasty chemical on you, this is your time to shine. Try to cut or poison the creature to persuade it to stick to his squid diet and spit you out (never thought I’d recommend anyone to poison a whale). Although, if a fighting giant octopus can’t make it out, your efforts might be hopeless.
- If you do get spat out, your problems are far from over, cause the giant may have gone down a few thousand feet more, which means your chances of reaching the surface alive are close to nil. If this happens, see if you can see the surface of the water. Otherwise follow the oxygen bubbles from your nose, keeping in mind that a fast ascend from deep down may also proof fatal, though you may not have much choice after having been stuck inside the whale’s mouth for a while.
Would a whale swallow a human being?
Until today, there has never been a single recorded incident of a sperm whale deliberately or mistakenly swallowing a person, or even having one in its mouth. The only report went around more than 100 years ago, where a sailor named James Bartley ended up inside the stomach of a sperm whale and was found in there alive by his fellow crewmen 36 hours later. This story has been thoroughly debunked as a fish tale by scientists. Also, ships get rammed by whales sometimes, but never with the intention of eating us.
And how about other whales?
Apart from Jonah, there aren’t many documented cases. However, in 2019, a diver named Rainer Schimpf was scooped up accidentally by a Bryde’s whale, another school bus-sized baleen whale. Schimpf was diving off the South African coast to photograph the yearly sardine run. As the South African was quite close to the fish, the hungry whale just scooped him up together with half a shole of sardines.
Lucky for Schimpf, the whale figured out something was wrong, and released him unscathed close to the surface.
But what about Jonah?
In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in some translations), the text mentions a dāḡ gā·ḏō·wl (דָּ֣ג גָּד֔וֹל), which swallow Jonah, which just means ‘great fish’. Although biblical scholars and scientists have in the past broken their heads while trying to prove the story to be literally true, even most Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scholars seem to agree that Jonah’s story is not to be taken literally, as the Mediterranean doesn’t contain any species big enough to swallow a human being.
As long as you keep a safe distance from whale feeding grounds, it’s close to impossible to get scooped up into their mouths. Chances of being swallowed entirely by a sperm whale are even less, as it mostly feeds at depths that are well beyond our reach.
So, to all the Jonah’s, divers, and sardine photographers out there: give these giants their space, and all will be well!