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A commercial lobster diver says he escaped relatively unscathed after nearly being swallowed by a humpback whale, in a biblical-sounding encounter that whale experts describe as rare but plausible.
Michael Packard, 56, said in local interviews and on social media that he was diving off the coast of Provincetown, Mass., on Friday morning when the whale suddenly scooped him up.
“I was in his closed mouth for about 30 to 40 seconds before he rose to the surface and spit me out,” Packard later wrote on Facebook. “I am very bruised up but have no broken bones.”
The Cape Cod Times reports that Packard was pulled out of the water by his crewman and rushed back to shore, where he was transported to Cape Cod Hospital. He walked — albeit with a limp — out of the hospital that afternoon.
While he’s still recovering from soft tissue damage, Packard told the newspaper he’ll be back in the water as soon as he heals.
What Packard says
Packard told WBZ-TV that he was about 45 feet down in the water when he suddenly felt “this huge bump and everything went dark.” He initially feared he had been attacked by a shark.
“Then I felt around, and I realized there was no teeth and I had felt, really, no great pain,” he said. “And then I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m in a whale’s mouth. I’m in a whale’s mouth, and he’s trying to swallow me.’ “
Packard was still wearing his scuba gear and breathing apparatus inside the whale’s mouth, which he said was completely dark. Fearing he wouldn’t make it out alive, he thought about his wife and sons.
After about half a minute, the whale rose to the water’s surface and began shaking its head from side to side.
“I just got thrown in the air and landed in the water,” Packard recalled. “And I was free, and I just floated there … I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I got out of that.”
What witnesses say
Crewman Josiah Mayo said he saw the whale burst to the surface and toss Packard back into the sea, according to the Cape Cod Times.
Lobster divers typically go out in pairs, with the crewman tracking the diver’s movements underwater by following their air bubbles.
Packard told Boston’s WCVB-TV that his mate “came right over to me and got another guy to help pull me aboard.”
That other man was Joe Francis, a charter boat captain who happened to be nearby.
“I saw Mike come flying out of the water, feet first with his flippers on, and land back in the water,” Francis told WBZ-TV. “I jumped aboard the boat. We got him up, got his tank off. Got him on the deck and calmed him down and he goes, ‘Joe, I was in the mouth of a whale.’ “
While the two men witnessed Packard’s escape, Packard noted that they didn’t see the whale scoop him up in the first place because “he ate me when I was down on the bottom.”
What whale experts say
Two researchers told NPR that interactions between humpback whales and humans are rare, and said the whale most likely engulfed Packard by accident as it was opening its mouth to feed on small fish.
Iain Kerr, the chief executive officer of the Massachusetts-based conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance, explained that humpback whales are known for lunge feeding, in which they open their mouths, accelerate and “take in 10 SUVs worth of water and fish and then everything else.”
Whales are typically very aware of their surroundings, Kerr said. But in this particular case, he said it’s entirely possible that as the whale lunged toward a school of fish, “it’s a one-in-a-million shot that [Packard] just got rolled into the mouth.”
Because humpback whales have a small esophagus, Kerr doubts that Packard could have actually fit in the whale’s throat. Still, he said, he’s lucky to be alive.
“With the type of forces that are involved here with animals this large, it could have gone 20 different ways that could have killed him,” he said.
For example, had the whale closed its mouth out of fear, it could have broken Packard’s neck or back.
“To be clear, the whale did not want him in its mouth,” Kerr added, comparing the situation to an open-mouthed biker accidentally inhaling a fly.
Dr. Jooke Robbins, the director of Humpback Whale Studies at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, wrote in an email that the whale would have had to open its mouth and potentially use its tongue to push Packard out.
Such events are extremely rare, both experts stressed.
Kerr recalls hearing about one incident in which a person survived being caught in a humpback’s mouth off the coast of South Africa in 2019, and Robbins said she is not aware of any comparable stories.
She added that she doesn’t expect to hear about any more encounters anytime soon, but advises swimmers and boaters to pay attention to their surroundings and keep a safe distance from any wild animals.
Plus, Kerr said, whales don’t generally want to interact with people either.
If you ever did happen to fall into the water near one, he said, “I would just stop moving and enjoy the experience, because what an opportunity.”
“As humanity looks ever more to the oceans for resources, recreation, agriculture, whatever, I think we’re going to have more and more interactions with these animals,” he added. “But generally speaking whales are gentle giants, and I think all they ask from us is a little bit of respect of their time and space.”