Can a whale swallow a human?

Humpback whale full breach viewed from a luxury whale watching tour from Reykjavik in Iceland

by Lucky Byfleet

Throughout history, we have heard stories that lead us to believe the possibility of a whale swallowing a human, even in the bible there is the story of Jonah and the whale… but is this actually possible? Due to all these tall tales, “can a whale swallow a human?” is a fair question. Should you be scared that if you fall overboard whilst whale watching you’ll get gobbled up by a giant creature from the deep?

The short answer is no. All but one species of whale don’t even have a throat big enough to swallow you! But which one does?

But I read a news story about a whale swallowing a human…

Recently there was an article in the Cape Cod Times about a man being supposedly eaten by a humpback whale, then spat back out. Another famous story of a whale swallowing a human has been circulating the internet recently. A human could definitely fit in a whale’s mouth – which can be up to about 3m in length, but the actual throat is tiny by comparison – How big is a whale’s throat? its maximum expansion is only about 30-40cm and most of the time it is much smaller than that.

The only thing a whale wants in its mouth is food, and for baleen whales, that means very very small fish in very very great quantity. Anything else will come as a massive shock to it and it will get rid of it as soon as possible! To worry about a whale swallowing a human isn’t necessary.

So, while tales of giant whales gobbling up humans make for intriguing stories, the actual biology of these magnificent creatures tells a different story. When you join us for a whale watching adventure, you’ll have the opportunity to witness these incredible animals in their natural habitat, safe in the knowledge that you won’t end up as an unexpected passenger in a whale’s belly.

In 2019 a sea lion was photographed in the mouth of a humpback whale, and both animals seemed very surprised. Both predators were feeding on a bait ball – a big group of fish, and normally the sea lions get out of the way as the whales lunge feed. Lunge feeding is when the whale comes at great speed towards a school of fish, then opens its mouth at the last possible second to engulf as many as possible.

It also takes in lots of seawater, and to separate the fish from the seawater it pushes the mixture of fish and water through great baleen plates in its mouth. They act as a sieve – leaving the whale with a mouthful of fish.

This is the case with all baleen whales, they have huge mouths, no teeth, and a throat that is physical too small to swallow a human even if they wanted to!

whale swallow a human
humpback whale breaching not swallowing humans
This friendly giant couldn’t swallow you if it wanted to. Which it doesn’t. Unless you are a tiny fish.

So if baleen whales can’t, which whale can swallow a human?

The only whale with a throat big enough to swallow a human is a sperm whale. That’s because they evolved to eat giant squid – an amazing creature much larger than you! You can see a giant squid in Londons Natural History Museum.

The sperm whale is a toothed whale, which means instead of baleen plates (the comb-like structures in humpback mouths) it has teeth. In fact, its teeth can weigh 1kg each, and sailors used to carve them to pass time on the ships, a kind of art called Scrimshaw.

However, the chances of you even seeing a sperm whale are really small – consider yourself very lucky if you do! They spend almost all their time in very deep water. So the chances of you being in the water with one, and it thinking you are a giant squid, are very slim indeed.

A far bigger threat is from us to the whales, so please don’t visit places with captive cetaceans and only buy ethically sourced fish, so these gentle giants will grace our oceans for years to come.

Hopefully, this has set your mind at ease so you can enjoy your whale watching trip with us. We go out on our gorgeous yacht Amelia Rose every day from Reykjavik harbor. Book your tour here.


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