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

27 June 2010

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.

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