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

27 June 2010

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Question

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 it's likely that anyone's 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? That's 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 oesophagus' are very tiny thin things, a couple of inches across. Even a blue whale's oesophagus only reaches about 10 inches if you stretch it. So I don't think that's going to be enough for us to get through. Maybe a child, but let's 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 - was there really isn't any air in there. If there is any gas inside a whale, it's probably methane, and that's 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 it's not air, not good to breath. Certainly, no air inside a fish, so I think that's really what's going to get you in the end. So I'm afraid no.

But there are lovely stories. I like Rudyard Kipling's, "How the Whale Got it's Throat" 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 - that's half of the whales, the Baleen whales. So, no, I don't think there's any chance. I think all the stories of people surviving being inside a whale are made up. Sorry about that.

Comments

Jonah's story must be another miraculous event as there are other ones in different parts of the Bible. Without a miracle neither he survived nor Nineveh people believed him so easily for his testimonies. Jesus quoted this event in comparison to his miraculous resurrection. So it is authenticating. You can't give a scientific explanation for other miracles in Bible which God did either.

I don't follow your reasoning...

I doubt any human could survive the being swallowed this way.
Humans demand mass quantities of air. When a whale sounds, (dives suddenly and deeply),human physiology would not survive the long periods of suffocation.and the extreme pressures of whale diving to over 300 ft for 10 minutes,at this depth oxygen becomes toxic,and there is the issue of decompression.This is speaking about blue whales.
I don't know if blue whales can regurgitate. I would say NO, surviving such an event is highly unlikely.

I do believe the story of jonah in the bible because it says he was swollowed by a big fish not a whale. And I few years back in the Philippines two men were out FISHING and they CAUGHT a big fish and when they cut it open there was a real live man inside alive he was bald and his skin was bleached white from the acid inside the fish he had been swollowed by this fish and been in it for a few days but he was alive so yes it is possible. You can look story up on youtube man found In a big fish alive . I believe it was in the Philippines .

Do you have a reference for this miraculous story?

Whales eat a lot of plankton, algae and seaweed during the course of a day. These produce oxygen. Why could a person not survive, if they were in the same stomach chamber as marine vegetation? Also, myself not being a marine biologist, I fail to see why the whale wouldn't swallow at least a little water with its food, Would this water not turn to vapor, releasing breathable oxygen?

Some seagoing vegetation produces oxygen - but only in the presence of sunlight. No sunlight, no photosynthesis.
And when water vaporizes, it is still water molecules in the air. Vaporizing does not break water down into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen.

Would you be digested in stomach and burn from acids,if you survived the mouth and throat?

Most expert opinion says it is not likely. My interest lies in the mant accounts of after death experiences where humans resumed a healthy life and extraordinary memory from comatose visions.Even atheists and neurosurgeons like Dr Eber Alexander ..(ABC News Oct 2012)

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