Whales, in general, are not capable of swallowing a human being and therefore will not eat you. However, there is a species of whales that does pose a legitimate challenge to that general theory: sperm whales.
Imagine you’re on a ship sailing smoothly on the ocean. You are admiring the clear sky and gusty breeze until you notice something strange. Something is lurking beneath the majestic waters. Lo and behold, a giant whale leaps out of the water and crashes down with a mighty splash.
These visuals are breath-taking, and you’ll be struck with a strange mixture of awe and fear.
In the aftermath of such unforgettable encounters, a few questions are likely to linger in your mind: Could such a massive creature swallow you? Can you somehow survive in the mouth of a prodigious whale? Have such incidences occurred before?
We’ll answer all of these questions, but before that, let’s dig into the incredible dimensions of the biggest species on our planet.
If you’ve never seen a whale, it might be hard to comprehend how colossal one can be. The blue whale is the largest of all the whales, and can measure in at close to 100 feet in length and weigh over 300,000 pounds. Its tongue alone can weigh as much as an adult elephant! A blue whale’s body is so big that it can fit a few hundred people inside it. Despite its mammoth size though, we don’t need to be worried about these big boys of the ocean. They generally don’t have any sharp teeth to tear apart their prey.
Their smaller-teethed cousin—sperm whales—pose much more of a threat. A large adult sperm whale can measure around 65 feet in length and weigh over 100,000 pounds. Besides being bestowed with sharp teeth, they also have a good appetite. Sperm whales consume nearly 3% of their body weight on a daily basis.
Getting a human being inside a whale’s mouth doesn’t appear to be impossible, so have there been such dreadful instances of giant fish swallowing humans?
If you’re a voracious reader—especially of mythology—you might be aware that stories of human beings swallowed by whales have been around for some time. One of the most famous mythical stories of such an occurrence is of Jonah from the Old Testament. It is said that Jonah was swallowed by a large fish.
Beguiling story of a Modern Jonah
The most famous reported incident in more recent history is of a man called James Bartley, who earned the moniker of the Modern Jonah.
The story goes something like this. At some point in February 1891, a young sailor with the name James Bartley was onboard a whaling ship called Star of The East. In the middle of the journey, crew members of this ship saw a large whale swimming off the coast near the Falkland Islands. They dropped a few boats armed with harpoons to hunt the whale, but the little boats were no match for the giant whale swimming around. One of the crew members, however, was successful in harpooning the whale and fatally injuring it. The whale started to shake its tail and toppled a boat in its panic. Around five members, including Bartley, fell into the water. They heard a loud roar of the whale, after which it disappeared for some time.
In the meantime, all the crew members were rescued, except for one: James Bartley. It was presumed that he drowned. They looked for him for a few hours, but to no avail. They had no choice but to return to the larger ship without him.
Before long, the whale reappeared. This time it was bloated and languishing on the surface. A team of sailors decided to take on this sea beast once again. As they moved closer to the whale, they realized that it was dead. They hooked the dead whale on a winch and brought it closer to the ship. They attached it to the main whaling ship and resumed their voyage.
Two days later, when someone was investigating this bloated whale, he felt something moving in its stomach. He first tried to dismiss it, but then he again heard something banging inside the whale’s body. He informed other crew members about it and everyone was shocked to hear the noise for themselves. They decided to cut open the whale. As they were making an incision through the whale’s body, they found a man inside the whale—James Bartley, nearly unconscious, but very much alive!
He had apparently survived for several hours or even days inside the stomach of the giant creature. Though he was alive, his face and arms were bleached white and he was barely able to talk. He was taken to a confined cabin in the ship where he spent a few days recovering. After a few weeks, he began making steady progress from his deteriorated health. He was eventually back in a state to tell his miraculous tale of surviving inside a whale!
He supposedly told his crew members that he could recall being submerged in the water and then saw an enormous open-mouthed whale approaching him. In a flash, he was inside the body of the whale. Inside, he was engulfed by darkness and felt himself slipping automatically through some narrow passage that was slimy all over. However, after some time, he blacked out and could not remember what had happened.
His companions on the ship started sharing this story by word of mouth and it started to gain traction. A few years later, New York World covered a short story on this incident. Later, other print media houses in the US and the UK picked up this story, earning the lucky sailor the sobriquet, Modern Jonah. Bartley died 18 years later and his tombstone in Gloucester, UK reads, “James Bartley – a modern-day Jonah”.
Dispelling the froth
A few decades later, a professor at Messiah College by the name of Edward Davis picked up this story and began a formal investigation. He noted a lot of factual inaccuracies in the story. He found out that while a ship with the name Star of the East existed at that time, it was not a whaling vessel, as had been reported in the media. After carefully examining dozens of papers from that time, he managed to find a list of sailors and other crew members who had boarded that ship. Interestingly, there was no mention of a man named James Bartley on that list!
The wife of the captain of that ship wrote a letter to him, rebutting the claims of a man being eaten alive by a whale. She wrote, “There is not one word of truth in the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was on the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.”
The biggest flaw in this story was scientific. Because, even assuming that Bartley had been swallowed by the whale, it would have been impossible for him to survive inside the slimy acidic stomach for several hours without any oxygen!
Can a Whale Eat You?
So, coming back to the original question, whales in general are not capable of swallowing a human being. It is very unlikely that a whale, or any other giant aquatic animal, would even be interested in devouring a human. Don’t just take my word for it; there are some good reasons behind this disinterest.
First off, most whales aren’t equipped with the type of teeth that could tear through flesh and bone. This is not just true of whales; any aquatic animal would require strong, specially designed teeth to break down large mammals (like humans) into pieces that were small enough to swallow and digest.
Certain species of whales don’t have teeth at all. For example, all the species of baleen whales are sometimes referred to as ‘teeth-deprived.’ In order to consume their food (which does not consist of humans, of course) they have baleen plates that have evolved in such a way to capture prey like small fish and krill. Furthermore, the esophagus of these whales is not particularly large (only a few inches wide), which means that a healthy human adult could not fit through it.
The toothy variety of whales called sperm whales are a bit of an exception. They have a large esophagus that is capable of swallowing large mammals, but their primary food sources are fish, squid, and octopus found in the deep sea. Although their gigantic persona can send shivers down your spine when you encounter them, they are generally considered harmless to humans, albeit for a different reason.
Sperm whales generally hunt roughly half a mile below the surface of the ocean. To be more precise, a sperm whale often hunts 3000 feet down! This depth is far deeper than any human can swim, as the pressure alone would be unbearable. Sperm whales hunt so deep in the sea that scientists are still unsure of how they locate and hunt for prey. In short, you need not to be scared of a whale coming up from the depths and swallowing you in a single gulp!
Is there any evidence of whale swallowing humans?
A few years back, a journalist by the name of Ben Shattuck decided to do a bit of investigative journalism around the topic of whales swallowing humans. He perused hundreds of records at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library to get some insight. Note that this library has some of the most comprehensive whale-related archives on the planet.
Despite his exhaustive research, he could not find a single tangible report of anyone being swallowed alive by a whale. Although he did find records of mariners being injured by whales and some even died after tangling with a whale, but none of the records mentioned whales swallowing a human completely.
In summary, whales are generally passive creatures who aren’t on a quest to meddle with humans. However, if you end up messing with these marine mammals, you might lose an arm or a leg, even though they are disinterested in feasting on you. Despite the various stories of humans surviving inside whales, dating back to biblical times, from a scientific standpoint, it’s impossible to be swallowed alive by a whale—and live to tell the tale!