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A Cape Cod Lobster Diver Was Swallowed by a Humpback Whale—and Then Spat Back Out

Except for severe bruising and a dislocated knee, the survivor is in good health and ready to return to work, he says

Sometime between 30-40 seconds after the diver was swallowed, the whale began to move its head from side to side and then resurfaced. (Personnel of NOAA Ship RAINIER via Wikicommons Public domain )
smithsonianmag.com

On June 11, commercial lobster diver Michael Packàrd was nearly swallowed whole by a humpback whale off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, reports Doug Fraser for the Cape Cod Times. The encounter only lasted about 30 seconds before the whale resurfaced and belched out Packàrd. Once back into the water, Packàrd's crewmates pulled him to safety and immediately transported him to Cape Cod Hospital, reports Rachel Treisman for NPR. Except for serious bruising and a dislocated knee, Packàrd escaped virtually unscathed.

The once-in-a-lifetime encounter occurred while Packàrd was about 45 feet deep into the water searching for lobsters. Then, he felt a huge push, almost like a "truck hit me and everything just went dark,” he said in an interview with WBTS. Packàrd initially thought a great white shark had attacked him, the Cape Cod Times reports.

"Then I felt around, and I realized there was no teeth, and I had felt, really, no great pain," recounted Packàrd to WBZ-TV News. "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."

While inside the whale, Packàrd—with his scuba gear and breathing apparatus still on—began to move around to try and escape. By Packàrd's estimate, about 30 to 40 seconds passed before the whale began to move its head from side to side.

“I’m like, 'This is how you’re gonna go, Michael. This is how you’re going to die. In the mouth of a whale,'” he tells the Washington Post's Jaclyn Peiser.

Then, it resurfaced.

“I just got thrown out of his mouth, into the water — there was white water everywhere,” Packàrd tells the Post. “And I just was lying on the surface floating and saw his tail and he went back down. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I got out of that. I survived.’”

Josiah Mayo, one of Pàckard's crewmates, witnessed the moment when the whale spat him back out in an eruption of bubbling white water.

"It took [Packàrd] from behind, and it seemed like it fully enveloped him immediately," Mayo tells the Post. "That's kind of remarkable, and so we can only imagine the whale was probably feeding."

Humpbacks are not aggressive animals; reports of whales attacking humans are nearly unheard of, reports the Cape Cod Times. The whale was likely a young juvenile searching for food, reports Maria Cramer for the New York Times. "I like to think of it as a teenager or a puppy. It probably doesn't know what it's doing too well," Mayo tells the Post.

When humpback whales feed, they engulf fish using their wide, billowing mouths as a net. They filter out water through their baleen plates before swallowing their catch, explains University of Massachusetts marine biologist Jooke Robbins to the New York Times. (Robbins is the director of the Center for Coastal Studies' Humpback Whale Studies Program.) As the whale lunged towards a school of fish, it is possible that Packàrd just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and got sucked into the whale's mouth, Iain Kerr, the CEO of the nonprofit Ocean Alliance explained to NPR.

Soon after being released from the hospital, Packàrd took to a Provincetown community Facebook page to tell his tale and thank rescue teams for helping him. Despite the harrowing experience, Packàrd tells the New York Times that he would return to work as a lobster diver as soon as he is fully healed.

In an Ask Me Anything live chat, Packàrd told Reddit users that he'd like Massachusetts native Matt Damon to play him in movie—if his story is every picked up in Hollywood. And the life of this lobster diver seems to have no shortage of interesting events that would make for great cinematic flair. Packàrd survived a deadly plane crash in Costa Rica in 2001. (He tells NBC Boston that the plane crash now takes a "close second" in terms of his near-death experiences.) One Reddit user asked for Packàrd's second craziest diving story, specifically if he regularly runs into great white sharks.

Packàrd doesn't see too many sharks, he wrote, but he has seen something much more grim. "A while back, I encountered the corpse of a missing person while diving," he wrote, "that is definitely up there with the crazy stories."

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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