Can a whale swallow a human?

Okay, so whale sharks won’t swallow you. But what about toothed whales? They do sometimes swallow prey whole, so you could fit down their esophagus. Sperm whales sometimes swallow squid whole, so it could definitely manage a human. In fact, there’s a story of a sailor being swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands in the early 1900s.

A diver miraculously survived being “swallowed” by a humpback whale off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Michael Packard said that he felt a shove, and “the next thing I knew it was completely black.” He recalled struggling inside the whale’s mouth for about 30 seconds before it surfaced and spat him out.

Though a humpback could easily fit a human inside its huge mouth which can reach around 10 feet it’s scientifically impossible for the whale to swallow a human once inside, according to Nicola Hodgins of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a U.K. nonprofit.

A humpback’s throat is roughly the size of a human fist, and can only stretch to about 15 inches in diameter to accommodate a bigger meal. 

In Packard’s case, she says, he was likely “engulfed as opposed to swallowed” before the whale realized its mistake and immediately spat him out—likely a traumatic experience for both Packard and the whale, which was just trying to eat some fish.

“[Packard] was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Hodgins says.

A baby humpback whale swims near the surface in blue water

It’s not the first time that humans have purportedly ended up in a whale’s mouth: In 2020, kayakers were caught in the mouth of a feeding humpback in California, as was a tour operator in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Harbour in 2019. Most famously, the Bible tells the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale to save him from drowning. Even Pinocchio’s father Geppetto is swallowed by a whale in the classic children’s story.

The idea of whales swallowing humans has long been a part of mythology—so much so that many people believe it to be true. Yet it’s scientifically impossible for all but one whale species—the sperm whale—to swallow something as large as a person.

In 2019 a sea lion was photographed in the mouth of a humpback whale, and both animals seemed very surprised. Both predators were feeding on a bait ball – a big group of fish, and normally the sea lions get out of the way as the whale’s lunge feed. Lunge feeding is when the whale comes at great speed towards a school of fish, then opens its mouth at the last possible second to engulf as many as possible. It also takes in lots of seawater, and to separate the fish from the seawater it pushes the mixture of fish and water through great baleen plates in its mouth. They act as a sieve – leaving the whale with a mouthful of fish.

This is the case with all baleen whales, they have huge mouths, no teeth, and a throat that is physically too small to swallow a human even if they wanted to!

What whales like to eat

Toothed whales, such as sperm whales, have teeth and feed on prey including squid and fish. Meanwhile, baleen whales—such as humpback, blue, gray, and minke whales—have special bristles in their mouths instead of teeth and eat tiny prey such as plankton, krill, and small fish.

Known as baleen, these bristles are made of a strong yet flexible protein called keratin—the same thing human hair and nails are made of—and are arranged in plates like a comb. When feeding, the whale takes a huge gulp of seawater and uses the baleen like a sieve to retain food in its mouth while pushing the water out through the gaps.

Of the 90 known whale species on Earth, sperm whales are the only species with throats large enough to technically swallow a human. The 65-foot-long mammals have a large esophagus to feed on larger prey such as giant squid, which they sometimes swallow whole. In fact, colossal squid—which can reach 46 feet long—have been found inside a sperm whale’s stomach.

While it’s physically possible, it’s “a billion to one thing” for a sperm whale to swallow a human, in part because encounters are so rare.

So there’s no need to panic next time you’re swimming in the ocean, especially because whales are not aggressive toward humans. Instead, Deaville says, it’s whales that should be more fearful of us because of the “wide variety of man-made pressures and threats out there.”

Humans can harm whales through hunting, pollution, habitat destruction, entanglement in fishing nets, ship strikes, and more. Irresponsible tourist behaviors—such as getting too close—can also be distressing for whales.


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