The ship staggered under a thunderous shock
that shook us asunder, as if she had struck and crashed on a rock; for the huge sea smote every soul from the decks of The Falcon but one; all of them, all but the man that was lash'd to the helm had gone."[11. 106-9"]

Tennyson - The Wreck

Friday, May 12, 2006

Surviving being eaten by a whale...

While, thankfully, the chances of anybody being swallowed by a large marine creature are extremely low 1 there is hope for those that do come face to face with this situation.

Literary Reference

Biblical reference in Christian belief cites that Jonah survived in the belly of a great fish without ill effect, but consistent attacks have been made on this story and its veracity. Strong opinions have been put to paper that something like this could not possibly occur and that the story is pure fabrication.

Rudyard Kipling, in his short tale ‘How The Whale Got His Throat’, tells of a shipwrecked Mariner who is swallowed by a whale. He causes such a fuss in the belly of the beast that it agrees to release him, and to prevent further instances of swallowing unwary seamen the Mariner pulls a wooden grating into its gullet so it will only be able to eat fish and small marine creatures in future.

While it is possible that Jonah’s experiences have more to do with analogies than reality, and Kipling’s story is just a fanciful tale, there are much more recent accounts of individuals becoming trapped inside marine creatures' bellies, only to emerge some while later alive – if not necessarily in perfect condition.

Bartley and the Star of the East

In the late winter of 1891, the whale-ship 'Star of the East' was in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands when it came within sight of a whale. Two boats were dispatched with harpoons to snare and kill the great beast of the sea, but the lashing of its tail capsized one of the launches spilling the crew into the sea. All were accounted for except for a single sailor, James Bartley 2 .

Ultimately the whale was killed and the carcass drawn aboard the vessel to begin the process of salvaging valuable resources. By the next day good progress had been made in removing the layers of blubber from the beast, so tackle was attached to its stomach to hoist it on deck. Sailors were startled by spasmodic life within the belly of the whale, and upon further inspection the missing sailor was found.

Bartley was quite mad for two weeks, but upon recovering his senses he recounted what little he could recall of being dragged under the water. Struggling for his life he had been drawn into darkness within which he felt a terrible and oppressive heat. He found slimy walls that gave slightly to his touch, but could find no exit. When his situation finally dawned on him Bartley lost his senses completely and lapsed into a state of catatonia.

During his time inside the whale the gastric juices effected his exposed skin. His face, neck and hands were bleached a deathly white with a texture like parchment, a condition from which the skin never recovered. Bartley believed that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, as breathing was not a problem.

Other Tales

Whales have been recorded attacking whaling ships, with references existing from the 19th century. While similar attacks may occur in modern whaling, the structural integrity of ships and enhanced sensor equipment mean that catastrophic attacks are less likely to occur.

In the winter of 1820, a Sperm Whale attacked the American whaling boat ‘Essex’ in the South Pacific, holing and capsizing her 3 . While many of the crew were able to get to safety, a number were never accounted for.

In March 1863 near Cape Cod, a whaling boat was struck by a whale sending a crewman overboard into the creature’s open mouth. His legs caught in between the teeth of the whale and after it died, due to injuries from exploding harpoons, he was rescued and revived.

Whale Attitude

While not actually a whale the Killer Whale, or Orca, has been known to attack and consume creatures as big as the Great White Shark, a dozen feet in length. In 1997 video footage was recorded of such an attack off the Farallon Islands 4 .

The Sperm Whale has a voracious appetite, and 11-inch teeth. They consider Sharks and Giant Squid fair game in making up the ton of food they can consume in a day.


By and large, the chances of being swallowed by a whale are small, so the need to worry about surviving inside one is extremely limited. Baleen whales prefer plankton, krill and the like, so large, flailing humans are only likely to be consumed accidentally. However, there are 65 species of toothed whale, including the Sperm Whale, and they are known to eat very large creatures whole. By comparison with a Great White Shark the average human swimmer is snack-sized. News reports usually arise when survivors live to tell the tale, so the absence of recent reports of people being swallowed by whales doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Once inside, the advice seems to be to sit tight and try not to touch anything if at all possible. Gastric processes are invasive and skin does not recover well from encounters with organic acids. The process by which gastric acid handles food is slow and wearing clothing, especially of the synthetic variety, is likely to buy you some time.

Escape from the belly of a whale, aside from simple survival, may be far more difficult as the majority of whales - especially the Baleen whales that rely on sieving minuscule marine lifeforms for their diet - have complex digestive systems. They may have up to four stomach chambers, rather like the multi-stomach system of a cow, which allows a controlled channelling of foodstuffs through the digestive system. There is also the constant intake of seawater that results from their feeding processes. Unless someone is looking for you, or you have a very large cutting implement and a strong stomach, you may have to be satisfied with simply surviving until starvation takes you or good fortune saves the day.

If all else fails you might consider using pepper or a small fire to smoke your way out!

1 Certainly there’s more chance of you being hit by a bus, or probably an asteroid for that matter.
There are reports that suggest that this whole story may be apocryphal, purely an effort by Bartley to raise his own status and popularity - refer to TSR - The Skeptical Review.
Events expanded upon in the book ‘In the Heart of the Sea : The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex’ by Nathaniel Philbrick.
The Farallon Islands are situated 28 miles due west of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

Courtesy of