Commercial lobster diver Michael Packard claims he was scooped up by a humpback whale while he was out for a dive last summer in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Speaking about his experience, he told a local Boston television station, “I felt this huge bump and everything went dark. Then I felt around, and I realised there was no teeth and I had felt, really, no great pain. And then I realised, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth. I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me.’”
While the odds of getting swallowed by a humpback whale are extraordinarily low, it’s possible — and there’s no downside to being prepared in case you ever find yourself on the wrong side of a whale’s mouth. I spoke with biological sciences Ph.D. student Valeria Paz at Florida International University about how you should react in the off chance it happens to you.
The best way to avoid getting swallowed by a whale
First, whales are not interested in eating people — humpback whales would never target a human and would only end up swallowing one by accident (if that’s any consolation). Humpback whales eat in a process called “filter feeding,” where they take in huge gulps of seawater dense with krill and other small fish, straining out the water through their baleen and then swallowing their catch. The only way you’ll end up in their mouth is if you’re in their feeding path.
The first solution is brushing up on your whale migration patterns. Paz explains, “humpback whales only swim in certain areas for certain seasons, so being aware of when [they’re in your region] will help.” By knowing their migration pattern, you can gauge whether you even need to anticipate seeing a humpback whale during your dive. In the case you are diving during humpback whale season, Paz recommends staying out of murky waters. She says, “if you can’t really see very well, imagine the whales cannot see you either. If they’re feeding in the area and it’s murky out, it’s probably best to not be in proximity to them.”
What to do if you get swallowed by a whale
Even if you do end up getting swallowed up by a humpback whale, not all hope is lost. According to Paz, she puts the odds that you’ll come away from the encounter completely unscathed at about 50/50. She explains, “if the whale detects that a human is in their mouth, hopefully they’ll open their mouth immediately rather than crush down.” You’re going to want to do whatever you can to indicate to the humpback whale that they’ve swallowed something atypical.
“I personally would try to do some strong movements, probably with my arms or legs, to indicate I’m there,” says Paz. She went on to explain there’s not much damage a person can do from the inside, so you don’t need to worry about injuring the whale (if that happens to be a concern of yours). Additionally, the reason humpback whales typically eat small fish and krill is because they’re unable to swallow anything much bigger. Since their throats can only stretch to a diameter of about 15 inches, it’d be impossible for the whale to get a human all of the way into its stomach. The biggest risk you run in this situation is getting scratched up by their bristle-like baleen plates, which they have in place of teeth. If you’re able to keep calm and avoid these baleens, you stand a decent shot of not only getting out of the situation with minimal injuries, but coming away from it with a killer story to tell at your next cocktail party.