stories about the sperm whale

Can you survive being swallowed by a whale?

July 17th, 2011

In traditional whaling, the period after harpooning the prey was highly dangerous for the hunters. The boat would be pulled at great speed through the ocean, sometimes far from the whaling ship, before the injured animal tired (Nantucket whalers called it a “sleigh ride”). The whale would thrash violently and the small whaling boats were often smashed to smithereens.

According to a well-told story, this is what happened to a boat from a British whaling ship, The Star of the East, near the Falkland Islands.  Their vessel destroyed, the crew were picked up from the water, but young apprentice seaman James Bartley was missing.

When the dead whale eventually floated up to the surface, just before sunset, the crew set to work immediately on the butchering, to avoid spoilage in the heat.  They got started on stripping the blubber, and then began to winch the stomach on deck, when suddenly movement was observed inside. When the stomach was cut open, out slid the missing sailor, alive but unconscious.

It took him over a month to recover enough to relate what had happened.  Terrifyingly, he had been engulfed by the whale’s cavernous mouth. He remembered sharp stabling pain as he slid over the teeth, only to plunge feet-first down a chute to land in the stomach, where he lost consciousness in the hot and foetid air.

Bartley did not escape unscathed: he was left blind, hairless, and with a strange pallid pigment of the skin, apparently bleached by the gastric juices. He never returned to sea, but made a living as a cobbler in Gloucester.  He died 18 years later, and his tombstone bears the epitaph: James Bartley -1870-1909 – A Modem Jonah.

Some would dismiss this as an impossible yarn.  Another story tells of a whale swallowing, this time of a seal-hunter who disappeared inside a sperm whale near Newfoundland, after falling off an ice pan. The whale was duly killed and cut open to retrieve the body.

Gagging from the overpowering stench of the stomach, the ship surgeon saw the young hunter had probably been killed outright when his chest and lungs were crushed. The body was covered in a gastric mucosa and all the unclothed parts were partly digested. The only sign of life was the lice on his head. This tale seems more plausible, but might be equally tall.