On Friday, a diver off the coast of Massachusetts was hunting lobster when he felt himself suddenly trapped inside the mouth of a humpback whale. Though scientists claim whales are incapable of swallowing humans, this is the fourth time in recent history that men have found themselves praying for salvation from inside a marine mammal.
Lobster fisherman mistaken for tiny fish
Early Friday morning, Commercial lobster diver Michael Packard went for his second dive of the day off Herring Cove Beach off Provincetown, Mass. His fishing boat, the “Ja’n J, was surrounded by a fleet of boats catching striped bass. Conditions for diving were good with visibility about 20 feet and the water temperature at 60 degrees. Packard was 35 feet down, about ten feet from the bottom, Packard was swallowed by a humpback whale.
“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.”
“I was completely inside; it was completely black,” Packard said. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys — they’re 12 and 15 years old.”
Packard estimated he was in the whale for 30 to 40 seconds before the whale finally surfaced and spit him out.
“I saw light, and he started throwing his head side to side, and the next thing I knew I was outside (in the water),” said Packard.
Crewman Josiah Mayo witnessed the event.
“There was all this action at the top of the water,” Mayo told the media, saying that he initially thought it was a great white shark. Mayo pulled Packard from the water, taking him to shore where he was admitted to the Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis and treated for soft tissue damage to his leg.
“Thank God, it wasn’t a white shark. He sees them all the time out there,” said Cynthia, Packard’s sister. “He must have thought he was done.”
Jooke Robbins, director of Humpback Whale Studies at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, told the media that swallowing people was not normal behavior for a whale.
Based on what was described, this would have to be a mistake and an accident on the part of the humpback,” Robbins said, suggesting that it may have been a juvenile feeding on sand lance, a small fish also known as sand eel, though it is not a true eel. Robbins explained that when humpback whales feed, opening their mouth causing their mouths to billow, blocking their forward vision. This aspect of their anatomy causes accidents and humpback whales frequently become entangled in fishing gear for this very reason. The whales’ esophagus is too small to actually swallow a man but their mouths are certainly large enough to wrap around a man.
“It is not something I have heard happening before,” Robbins said of the incident. “So many things would have had to happen to end up in the path of a feeding whale.”
Whales in the end of days
The Biblically-minded will, of course, see these incidents as similar to the account of Jonah who spent three days inside a large fish, presumed by many to have been a whale.
Hashem provided a huge fish to swallow Yona; and Yona remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Jonah 2:1
The Bible refers to a large fish and a whale is technically a marine mammal. Whales are physically incapable of swallowing anything as large as a full-grown man but the Biblical story has entered the collective unconscious in the form of a whale.
In Jewish tradition, the large fish that swallowed Jonah is an integral part of the Messianic era. In the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 75a), it is written that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan. The Leviathan is described as an oceangoing monster though not necessarily a whale. God became concerned that in multiplying, the species would destroy the world. God killed the female Leviathan, preserving her flesh for the special banquet that will be given to the righteous on the arrival of the Messiah. The banquet will be held inside a huge tent made from the Leviathan’s skin.
This midrash (homiletic teaching) is the source of an unusual blessing recited during the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), in which we recite upon leaving the sukkah (tabernacle):
“May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.”
Men swallowed by whales
Though the experts claim it is exceptionally rare for a whale to swallow a man, this happened in March 2019 in South Africa when Heinz Toperczer, an Austrian nature photographer, found himself inside the mouth of a Bryde’s Whale.
Though scientists believe it is impossible for a human to survive in a whale’s stomach for more than a few minutes the image has entered into the collective unconscious. AB Marine, an Algoa Bay whale watching site, reported on the incident, noting two post-biblical stories of men being swallowed by whales.
A story tells of James Bartley being on a whaling expedition in 1891 when his boat was attacked by one of the creatures. His comrades caught the whale and were understandably shocked to discover Bartley, 36 hours later while carving up their catch. His skin was bleached from the gastric juices and he was blind for life. Although the story has been reprinted several times and referred to in modern fiction it contains many factual inconsistencies and has never been confirmed. It is doubtful that a man could survive such an experience without suffocating.
A story was published April 2016 in the New Delhi-based publication The Indian Express about a 56-year-old Spanish fisherman named Luigi Marquez who was swallowed by a whale and spit out three days later. At the bottom of the article, the following disclaimer appears: “This story is a spoof and you are suitably warned.”