Swallowed by a whale?

18 November 2014

Question

What would happen if a scuba diver was swallowed by a toothed whale?

Answer

Joanne - Hello, Naked Scientists. We're Joanne...

David - ...and David.

Joanne - From Dublin in Ireland. And we wanted to know what would happen if a scuba diver was swallowed by a toothed whale?

David - Would he be able to escape back up the oesophagus?

Joanne - Could the whale regurgitate the diver back up?

David - Would he be dissolved by the whale's digestive enzymes and if so, how long would it take to corrode the wetsuit?

Tim - To find out the answer, I zipped up my wetsuit and jumped off a pier into ocean of knowledge with animal anatomist, Joy Reidenberg. Now, we're floating about in the sea and I can see a few orcas. Joy, are we likely to get swallowed up?

Joy - Orcas just don't have big enough mouths to swallow a human. An orca's gape is only big enough to engulf a human's head, but not much more of the human's body. What's more is the opening of the throat is much smaller than the mouth. It's going to accommodate a large whole salmon perhaps even a human thigh, but nothing much larger. So, when an orca, accidentally swallowing a human especially when sporting a scuba tank is akin to saying, you accidentally swallowed a watermelon whole. It's just physically impossible.

Tim - Well, that's reassuring. But I can see a few bigger whales swimming around. What about those sperm whales?

Joy - Sperm whales are certainly bigger, but their throats are relatively small. However, a large adult may be big enough to swallow us and baleen whales certainly have a mouth big enough to engulf a human, but their throats are just not big enough to swallow one. But it's really unlikely that a toothed whale would even attempt to swallow a human. To date, there are no records of such an event happening. Rarely, humans have been killed by whales, but not accidentally eaten.

Tim - Now, let's take a look at the stomach of a whale. If we just shrink ourselves and slide down the oesophagus, what's going to happen to us?

Joy - The digestive enzymes of a killer whale have no problem digesting other mammals. And so, our human flesh will be just as easily digested.

Tim - Yeah, I can feel them eating away at my skin. Shouldn't the wetsuits protect us?

Joy - Well unfortunately, there are leaky gaps in our wetsuits which is why it's called a wetsuit. So, let's change to our dry suits.

Tim - Okay, done!

Joy - Wetsuits and dry suits are both made from the same artificial rubber used to make oil-resistant and acid-resistant protective gloves. And so, it wouldn't be digested by the stomach enzymes. But if a whale can't digest something then it'll try to pass it out.

Tim - Joy, there's a stomach rumbling. It's making me a bit nervous. Are we going to get thrown up?

Joy - Well, there's no record of orcas vomiting solid remains from their prey and I suspect it would be unlikely that they will throw us up.

Tim - Wonderful! Now, let's get out of here. With feet firmly on the ground, Joy decided to write us an article, all about being swallowed by whales which you can read at nakedscientists.com. next week, we will be answering this question from Paul Gen...

Paul - I was on an interminable flight from New York to Hong Kong a few days ago and I don't understand why airplane manufacturers aren't working on increasing the speed of air travel.

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