Could a human survive swallowing by a whale?

27 June 2010


this is a picture of a whale with its tail out of the water



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?


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.


I'm a Pastor in Dallas, TX and love to study the Bible. The reality is that Jonah is written in the style of satire. Think the Saturday Night Live of the Bible. Satire takes realities and blows them out of proportion to prove a point. It's a beautiful literary technique that ultimately serves the theological purpose of the book to us on a platter. To the scientists point, humans can't survive in a whale's stomach, but the stomach of the whale simply satirizes the bottom of the bottom that a human experiences when they presume to run from God's purposes in this world. Cows don't repent. The city of Nineveh wasn't a 3 days get the picture. We conservative Christians would do well to maintain the inspiration and authority of scripture without checking our brains at the door.

Jonah is not a satire any more than the resurrection of Jesus is a satire. I hate it when politically correct people, whether they be scientists, analysts or, sadly clergy try to explain away a miracle in the Bible! You know not because you believe not. Faith cannot ne explained away and neither can miracles. Jesus died. Jesus rose again. You can't explain that, how can you explain Jonah, Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, David and Goliath, Moses and the Exodus (and related plagues and miraculous protection of the Jews)...on and on! It is not possible to explain by reason because the very nature of a miracle defies reason! So, yes, I believe the story of Jonah is literal because the same God who raised Lazarus and Jesus (and others!) from the dead could easily protect Jonah in the belly of a whale, or fish, or whatever animal God chose to use!

Very nicely put Debra. You hit the nail right on the head!! Amen!

Debra, you hit the nail on the head. Miracles defy reasoning. I too believe the story of Jonah is literal because our almighty God can easily protect Jonah in the belly of a whale. Just like God protected Daniel from the lions in the lions den.

Just a quick thought. To me the Jonah story is very curiously corroborated by Jesus in the NT. The Pharisees who are the religious elect who ‘know everything’ wanted to trap/get rid of Jesus and so asked Him to do a ‘big’ miracle. The word translated is like a ‘part the seas type miracle’. From Jesus standpoint it’s very rude and arrogant to go before God and expect Him to do what you ask with such intentions. So he says ‘no such miracle will be given, accept the sign of Jonah’. What he’s doing here is very clever. He takes a story that is outlandish, possibly the Bibles most outlandish and says basically ‘you want something big do you? Well you know the scripture better than anyone (they did, many of the Pharisees had the whole OT memorized!) but you clearly don’t believe this little ‘kids story’.

Jesus often liked to point out how the faith of a child trumped adults ‘knowledge’. To me, he threw these guys a bone. The story is a metaphor for Jesus resurrection after three days and even though these guys were trying to trap him he was kind enough to his enemies to remind them of story they doubtfully believed so that in their very lifetime they’d be faced with the reality to believe or not believe in who Jesus is when he rose from the dead. Imagine the tears when these guys thought back to the day they tried to trap Jesus...

In my humble opinion Jesus picked that story because it’s ridiculous. That’s precisely the point folks. He’s God. He gets it. Either that is a coincidence beyond all coincidences, genius writing or, or maybe He really is God and understands our hang ups...

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...

It's pretty obvious you don't understand his reasoning. Unfortunately... that doesn't make him wrong just because *you* don't understand his reasoning. Good luck ;)

Doesn't make him right either

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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