A humpback whale jumps into the surface of the Pacific Ocean in 2018 in Uramba Bahia Malaga National Natural Park in Colombia. Michael Packard says he was nearly swallowed by such a whale on Friday while diving for lobsters off the coast of Provincetown Miguel Medina. AFP via Getty Images hide caption
Miguel Medina / AFP via Getty Images
Miguel Medina / AFP via Getty Images
One commercial lobster diver says he got away relatively unscathed after nearly being swallowed by a humpback whale in a biblical-sounding encounter that whale experts call rare but plausible.
Michael Packard, 56, said in local interviews and on social media that he was diving off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts on Friday morning when the whale suddenly picked him up.
“I was in his closed mouth for about 30 to 40 seconds before he surfaced and spat me out,” Packard later wrote on Facebook. “I am very hurt, but I have no broken bones.”
The Cape Cod times reports that Packard was pulled out of the water by his crew member and brought back to shore, where he was transported to Cape Cod Hospital. That afternoon he left the hospital, albeit hobbling.
While he was still recovering from soft tissue damage, Packard told the newspaper he would be back in the water as soon as he was healed.
What Packard Says
Packard told WBZ-TV that he was about 14 meters deep in the water when he suddenly “felt this huge bump and everything went dark”. He initially feared that he had been attacked by a shark.
“Then I felt around and found there were no teeth and I really didn’t feel much pain,” he said. “And then I realized, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the mouth of a whale. I’m in the mouth of a whale and he’s trying to devour me.’ “
Packard still carried his scuba gear and breathing apparatus in the whale’s mouth, which he said was completely dark. Fearing he wouldn’t make it alive, he thought of his wife and sons.
After about half a minute the whale rose to the surface and began to shake its head back and forth.
“I was just thrown in the air and landed in the water,” recalls Packard. “And I was free, and I just floated there … I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I got out of there.”
What witnesses say
Crewman Josiah Mayo said he saw the whale break to the surface and throw Packard back into the sea, according to the Cape Cod Times.
Lobster divers usually go out in pairs, with the crew member tracking the diver’s movements underwater by following his air bubbles.
Packard told Bostons WCVB-TV that his buddy “came over to me right away and got another guy to help pull me on board.”
That other man was Joe Francis, a charter boat captain who happened to be nearby.
“I saw Mike fly his feet first out of the water with his flippers and land back in the water,” Francis told WBZ-TV. “I jumped aboard the boat. We got him up, put his tank down. We got him on deck and calmed him down and he says, ‘Joe, I was in the mouth of a whale.’ “
While the two men witnessed Packard’s escape, Packard noted that they hadn’t seen the whale at all because “it ate me when I was down.”
What whale experts say
Two researchers told NPR that humpback whale-human interactions are rare, and said the whale most likely accidentally devoured Packard when it opened its mouth to feed on small fish.
Iain Kerr, the chief executive officer of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit conservation organization Ocean Alliance, said humpback whales are known for their lunge-feeding, which involves opening their mouths, speeding up, and “10 SUVs worth water and fish and then everything else take up”. . ”
Whales are usually very aware of their surroundings, Kerr said. But in this particular case, he said it was entirely possible that when the whale lunged at a school of fish, “a shot in a million in a million that” [Packard] was just rolled into the mouth. ”
Since humpback whales have a small esophagus, Kerr doubts that Packard could actually have fitted in the whale’s throat. Still, he said, he’s lucky to be alive.
“With the kind of forces involved with such large animals here, there could have been 20 different ways that could have killed him,” he said.
For example, if the whale had closed its mouth in fear, it would have broken Packard’s neck or back.
“To be clear, the whale didn’t want him in its mouth,” added Kerr, comparing the situation to an open-mouthed biker who accidentally inhales 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 should have opened its mouth and possibly used its tongue to push Packard out.
Such events are extremely rare, emphasize both experts.
Kerr remembers hearing about it an incident in which a person survived when caught in the mouth of a humpback whale off the coast of South Africa in 2019, and Robbins said he was not aware of any comparable stories.
She added that she doesn’t expect to hear of any further encounters anytime soon, but does advise swimmers and boaters to be careful about their surroundings and keep a safe distance from wildlife.
Plus, according to Kerr, whales generally don’t want to interact with humans either.
If you ever fell into the water near one, he said, “I would just stop moving and enjoy the experience because what an opportunity.”
“As humanity seeks more and more resources, recreation, agriculture, etc. in the oceans, I think we will have more and more interactions with these animals,” he added. “But in general whales are gentle giants, and I think all they ask of us is a little respect for their time and space.”