Ask a Scientist: Could I get swallowed by a whale?

Once or so often, stories emerge about people who have found themselves in the jaw of a whale – seemingly minding their own business while filming underwater or looking for some delicatessen. But out of a sudden, the surroundings are turning very dark and claustrophobic. The latest water user who fell victim to this Hollywood-like scenario was a crab fisher from Massachusetts.

First of all, incidents like these are extremely rare. We all know the story of Jonah and the Whale and no, it is not impossible to be scooped by a large baleen whale while sharing their environment. Yet there’s still a greater chance you’ll fall off a cliff while taking a selfie or being knocked out by a coconut while sunbathing. And there is still no anecdotal evidence that anyone has ever been ‘swallowed’ by a whale.

Why not? Whales are pretty smart. Often, they realise their mistake quicker than you do and will ‘release’ you. For an animal that is used to tiny zooplankton, you’re a pretty big piece to chew on (just kidding, whales do not chew – ever). Baleen whales are filter feeders and do not have teeth. Their baleens are fine horn plates, similar to our hair and nails. Since they swallow several thousands of litres at once when they go for their treats, the water has to go again which is why they push it out with their meal getting stuck between the plates (the water is not released through their blowhole. It’s a popular myth we learn from children’s books and TV. The ‘fountain’ we see is actually condensed water...).

But enough about whale biology.

So why does this happen to people? When we are entering the marine environment, we have to prepare ourselves for a variety of scenarios. Any wild animal can be a potential threat to our health and safety – intentional but also unintentional. It wasn’t the whale’s intention to get a person into its mouth, it just happened. And that’s most often the case with whales that are feeding. So if we are between a yummy bait ball and a hungry whale, we may be scooped out of the water because the whale did not see us. Baleen whales do not have echolocation abilities like their toothed cousins so they are not necessarily aware of our presence, particularly in murky waters. And this is when most accidents happen.

I have found myself once floating in the Arctic Ocean and I remember I have felt quite uneasy about the feeding humpback whales around me. People always tell you to ‘trust the whales’ but again, if they do not see you and you are in the way, this can get very ugly. I have seen footage of people being a metre away from a whale that came up feeding what looked like a near-miss situation. Yikes!

More people are getting into the water for recreation or fishing and this provides the potential for incidents to happen. Further, swimming with humpback whales is now one of the hottest trends when we talk bucket lists which comes with a fair amount of risk. Such commercial experiences, however, generally take place in warm water with good visibility and non-feeding whales. Nonetheless, people still may get injured, like last year in Western Australia because momma whales can get pretty tired of us, too. But this is a different story to tell.

Luckily, so far, anyone who had this biblical experience has made it out alive. But surely not without pain or terror. So my advice is: Don’t try this at home.

« back