Ben Shattuck examines a history of the discussion and speculation and fictions about whales swallowing humans…
An idea’s been floating around for some time that whales more than chewed people — that they swallowed them, and people might have survived in the stomach. Jonah’s story came first, and then there were rumors from the 19th century Yankee Whale Fishery — whaling ships leaving New York and New England ports for years on the open ocean. I’d like to believe in swallowings, but it’s tough. There is no air in the stomach, for one. There are acids. And if we are talking about sperm whales, which we are most of the time, there is the deadly passage through the 30-foot jaws lined with 8-inch teeth.
Still, you’d like to think it’s possible. You want to believe in an animal that can fit you inside them — that you might be consumed not piece-by-piece, mouthful-by-mouthful as sharks and bears would eat you, but wholly; to be encased as your full self, womb-like. You want to believe in big animals like you did when you were a kid. You want to be powerless as you are leaning into hurricane winds or with your eyes closed or looking into the ocean….
Sperm whales would rather eat squid, which require little chewing, and not the hairy, bony things we are. That’s not to say sperm whales haven’t swallowed more than squid. In the 1960s, biologist Malcolm Clarke and his colleagues examined the remains from 2,403 stomachs of sperm whales caught by whalers off the South American coast. Aside from the hundreds of squid remains, he found seabirds, lobsters, seals, driftwood, coconuts, stones, rays, swordfish and sharks. While finding a tiny coconut in a whale’s stomach is enchanting, there’s nothing so striking as the image of a sperm whale eating a shark. It disturbs me the way turducken does, like as a close cousin to cannibalism. More terrifying, with sharks in the diet, Americans who might have been swallowed by sperm whales would have had another thing to worry about: sharing the stomach of your predator with yet another predator. To be eaten after being eaten. To be the –en of the turducken….
If, I’ll pretend for a moment, you were swallowed, it would happen like this: You would first be chewed. Sperm whales’ teeth are 8 inches long – longer than most blades in your knife drawer. Then you would be gulped to the fauces, the back of the mouth, and forced down. Here is where Bartley apparently touched the quivering sides of the throat. You would also touch the throat, perhaps claw at the sides of the throat like you would sliding down an icy slope. There would be no air, and you’d suffocate in acid and water, but, we’re saying, you somehow survive. Imagine a black and mucous-smothered tube sock slipping over you.
You would then enter the first stomach, coined by 19thcentury naturalist Thomas Beale as the holding bag. It’s lined with thick, soft and white cuticle. At 7 feet long by 3 feet wide and shaped like a big egg, the first stomach would easily fit you. If you were kept in the holding bag for over 24 hours, you would likely be joined by squid, but a coconut or shark might come, too. Most squid that sperm whales swallow are bioluminescent — the neon flying squid is a favorite. So in no time at all you’d be bathing in a pool of phosphorescence, a slew of green-yellow light winking around you like you were standing in a field in Maine come July when all the fireflies are sparking up. The rest would be black, very black.
As the stomach acids broke you down, you would continue through three smaller stomachs — a chain of membranous, acid-filled cavities. The second stomach is S-shaped, and the third is more like the first, only smaller. Then, liquidated, you would ooze into the intestine, and eventually leave the whale as excrement, floating out of the anus and into the cold deep ocean, dissolving still further until you had become so small as debris that you were indistinguishable from the ocean itself. You would lap against whaling ships looking for whales.
The only part of you that might not be digested would be your bones. Squid beaks, equally, aren’t digested — they pass through the sperm whale’s intestines wholly. Along the way, the beaks scrape the intestinal lining, creating scar tissue, which is then passed in its new form, ambergris — the intoxicating, aromatic substance used in the most potent perfumes that was worth, in 1869, $97.50 per pound. That’s $1,600 per pound today. The Egyptians burned it as incense. Your sharp fingerbones or splintery skull would rub on the whale’s intestinal lining, and your remains would scrape up the most beautiful smell on earth.