Science Questions

Could a human survive being swallowed by a whale or big fish, like Jonah

Sun, 27th Jun 2010

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Question

Anna Olsen asked:

Hi!

 

I enjoy listening to your podcasts, and now I have a question of my own I hope you might have an answer to. :) Recently I've been thinking about the Old Testament story of Jonah, who was swallowed by "a big fish" (or "a whale" according to the gospel of Matthew). Are there any modern day accounts of humans (or animals for that matter) surviving something like this?

Answer

Helen -   There are plenty of accounts.  They're all on the internet and I should think they are all untrue because there are all sorts of reasons why I don't think itís likely that anyoneís really going to survive - at least not for very long - inside any of these animals.  We could look at it if you like.

Which of the whales could physically swallow us?  Thatís the first question.  Can we actually get into their gullet, down their oesophagus?  If you're talking about Baleen whales with baleen plates that filter tiny plankton and creatures from the sea, like a blue whale, the answer is no because their oesophagusí are very tiny thin things, a couple of inches across.  Even a blue whaleís oesophagus only reaches about 10 inches if you stretch it.  So I don't think thatís going to be enough for us to get through.  Maybe a child, but letís not try that. 

So that really leaves the toothed whales, the other part of the whale group, things like killer whales and sperm whales.  Yes, they can swallow large prey.  They can swallow large seals whole.  We know sperm whales can swallow giant squid whole, so chances are, they could swallow a human whole.  If you can survive the being swallowed part of it and get past all those teeth, you then will find yourself in a complex digestive system.  They have up to four stomach chambers, like a cow.  Find your way through those if you can while also dodging all those nasty digestive enzymes that are going to start corroding your skin.

Chris -   Well not least the lack of oxygen, sure it is.

Helen -   Absolutely.  That was my final point Ė was there really isnít any air in there.  If there is any gas inside a whale, itís probably methane, and thatís not going to help you out very much.  We do know that whales can be flatulent, so there is some gas.  They do have gassy pockets, but itís not air, not good to breath.  Certainly, no air inside a fish, so I think thatís really whatís going to get you in the end.  So I'm afraid no.

But there are lovely stories.  I like Rudyard Kiplingís, ďHow the Whale Got itís ThroatĒ which tells of a shipwrecked mariner who was swallowed by a whale and he caused such a fuss that the beast agrees to release him, but the mariner, to prevent this ever happening again, forces a wooden grate into the mouth of the whale so that it won't swallow anymore people, and all it can do is swallow little fish.  So he got that half right -  thatís half of the whales, the Baleen whales.  So, no, I don't think thereís any chance.  I think all the stories of people surviving being inside a whale are made up.  Sorry about that.

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Anna Olsen asked the Naked Scientists: Hi! I enjoy listening to your podcasts, and now I have a question of my own I hope you might have an answer to. :) Recently I've been thinking about the Old Testament story of Jonah, who was swallowed by "a big fish" (or "a whale" according to the gospel of Matthew). Are there any modern day accounts of humans (or animals for that matter) surviving something like this? What do you think? Anna Olsen, Thu, 8th Apr 2010

http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/wildlife/whales/blue_whale.htm RD, Thu, 8th Apr 2010

Define survive, as you would need to have air to breathe, otherwise your life will be measured in minutes, and being scared will increase oxygen demand considerably, reducing the time that you will be conscious to under a minute. SeanB, Thu, 8th Apr 2010

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