A lobster diver in Massachusetts has reportedly had a brief insight into the Biblical story of Jonah, spending time engulfed in the mouth of a humpback whale before being spat out with only minor injuries.
Lobster diver Michael Packard posted an image of himself holding up a lobster to the Provincetown Community Space Facebook page on Friday, June 11, but it was the words that caught the world’s attention.
“Hi everyone, I just want to clarify what happened to me today. I was lobster diving and a humpback whale tried to eat me. I was in his closed mouth for about 30 to 40 seconds before he rose to the surface and spit me out. I am very bruised up but have no broken bones.
I want to thank the Provincetown rescue squad for their caring and help.”
As many experts have pointed out, the whale did not actually try to eat Packard. Humpbacks live on a diet of krill and small fish. They lack teeth, having baleen instead, so chewing Packard would have been well beyond it, even were he not equipped with scuba gear. Moreover, according to the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) their internal digestive system is completely unsuited to consuming a grown man, (unlike sperm whales) making reports of Packard being “swallowed” misleading.
Understandably, this was not what was on Packard’s mind when he found himself in the great beast’s mouth.
Equally, Packard was not well placed to assess the species of cetacean in whose mouth he was held. “I was completely inside; it was completely black,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times after being released from hospital later that day. "“At first, I thought maybe a shark. But due to the lack of teeth and the size of it I soon realized that what I was in was a whale... I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’” To make matters worse, he had also lost the regulator for his scuba gear in the jostling and could have drowned if he hadn't found it again.
Josiah Mayo, a crewmember on Packard’s boat provided the identification, telling Packard’s sister he saw a humpback break the surface of the water and fling Packard out by shaking its head. Mayo collected him and radioed for an ambulance to meet them at the pier. Mayo’s father is whale expert Charles “Stormy” Mayo, so he presumably knows his whales.
Based on Mayo’s description the whale was not fully grown. However, that was probably not the reason it made the mistake of catching a diver in its mouth. Instead, according to CCS Humpback expert Jooke Robbins, humpback’s mouth opens so wide when they feed their forward vision is obscured. This leads to them being caught in the lines of lobster pots, a major cause of death in the area where this event occurred. It’s an even more serious issue for the North Atlantic right whale, which teeters on the edge of extinction as a result, a problem made worse by climate change.
After the world caught on to Packard's adventure his son Jacob got him on a Reddit AMA where he was asked whether a whale's tongue is smooth like a dog's or scratchy like a cat's ("I was in a dry suit, couldn’t really tell. Also, the mouth was filled with water,"), how did he get out ("Eventually the whale managed to dislodge me by moving its head and tongue, I think"), and who would play him in the movie ("Matt Damon") among other things.
Though there has been some skepticism towards the story due to its sheer unlikeliness, and possibly the lack of trauma from decompression after ascending at such a speed to be spat out, experts have gone on record saying it is extremely rare but feasible that a whale that gulp feeds, like a humpback whale, could unknowingly scoop up a person.
"Is he lucky to be alive? Absolutely. I mean, but it was an accident, a very unusual accident," New England Aquarium's Dr Peter Corkeron told WBZ-TV. "He was unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time... [T]his is a one in a... trillion chance."
Packard is no stranger to danger, however. Besides diving first for abalone and now lobsters, facing the threat of white sharks both times, he was once in a plane crash that killed three of the eight on board. According to the AMA, a nurse at the hospital asked Packard for lottery numbers. Redditers are already lobbying GoPro to sponsor him so we can all see his next adventure.
When asked if this had put him off diving, Packard refused to let the experience stop him. “I’m getting back in the water as soon as possible. This job is my life, wouldn’t stop for anything,” he said.