Jonah And The Whale: Can A Whale Swallow A Human Being?

Can A Whale Swallow A Human Being? Let’s Consider The Facts

There’s a very popular story about a whale swallowing a person. But based on science, can a whale swallow a human being?

Jonah And The Whale: Can A Whale Swallow A Human Being?
Jonah and the Whale (1621) By Pieter Lastman (Public Domain)

If you’re anything like many ocean goers, you may have wondered what it would feel like for a whale to swallow you. Especially if you’ve ever seen one of these absolutely massive creatures in real life.

You’d probably think being swallowed by a whale would be one of the most horrible things that could ever happen. Well, you are not alone in wondering if  a whale swallow a human being.

So, stories aside, can a whale swallow a human being and what would happen to such a fellow?

Read on to learn the facts.

Can A Whale Swallow A Human Being?

The fact is; out of the many whale species in our blue waters, there are only two species that have the actual capacity to swallow a human being – the sperm whale and the whale shark. And technically, the whale shark is a shark – not actually a whale.

Strangely enough, even the humongous blue whale doesn’t have the anatomical capacity to swallow anything close to a human being. Another peculiar thing about whales is, they are very unlikely to attack human beings.

For the sake of debunking the myth, let’s start with the whale shark. Though it’s not a whale, just like most of the true whales, it has a large mouth but very small esophagus. A few inches across.

Hence practically it cannot swallow you. But, the risk about the whale shark is, it keeps its large mouth open most of the time.

So if you somehow happen to dive in, your bones might be crushed when it closes its mouth. If you get lucky, and it doesn’t crush you right away, you’re still under risk of suffocation. These misfortunes are rather unlikely to happen to you because the whale typically spits out what it cannot swallow.

Moreover, the whale shark and other very large whales typically shut their big mouths while swimming around people.

Thank goodness for that!

 Most whales lack teeth, especially the largest (baleen) whales. Rather, they have baleen plates to capture and strain very small prey from the surrounding waters.

So, Which Whales Can Swallow You?

We are left with only one whale species that has the anatomical potential to take you down its belly – the sperm whale.

Sperm whales have a much larger throat than the rest of their kind. It allows them to swallow considerably large animals whole. For example, giant squid. So swallowing a human shouldn’t be too much of a problem for this marine mammal.

Be that as it may, they hunt several miles underwater – up to 1,000 meters (3,000 feet). As you can imagine not many humans would wander down to such depths. So its chances of swallowing a person are very slim.

In addition, there is no recorded or proven case of this or any other whale species swallowing a person.

What Would Happen If A Whale Did Swallow You?

To satisfy your curiosity, let’s say it happens by some freak accident.

As mentioned earlier, you would suffocate as the whale’s digestive tract has no oxygen. Hence you would pass out in a few seconds and succumb to death within the next 3 or so minutes.

The whale’s stomach contains very acidic enzymes. So your body would gradually become digested and absorbed.

Not a pretty picture at all.

Jonah In The Belly Of The “Whale”

So, now that we know most whales cannot swallow us, how did the Biblical Jonah manage a 3-day voyage in there?

Well, let’s keep the miracle explanation aside.

It’s highly unlikely that the beast was actually a whale. Although the modern bible calls it a whale, the original word in Hebrew is “dag gadol”, which means “enormous fish.” We could be talking about a shark, a Giant Oarfish or some mysterious creature.

How he survived in its belly is an absolute mystery that nobody can explain to date. Practically, nobody would survive such a length of time in any beast’s belly.

Bottom line, if you are swallowed by a whale, you wouldn’t survive more than a few minutes. The baleen plates in large whales may look scary too, but they are literally very harmless.

Though there are one or two accounts of sperm whales swallowing 19th century whalers, none was ever confirmed.

For now, that theory remains a myth.

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