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Humpback whale “swallows” a diver? Not exactly.

The recent story of a humpback whale “swallowing a diver” off Cape Cod has made global news. We are so happy that the diver is OK but we can’t quite “swallow” some of the misleading headlines. 

We are your resident whale nerds, here to clear some things up.

For any media inquiries, please give us a call at 508-746-2522.

Let's break it down - Could a diver fit in a humpback whale's mouth?

basketball hoop graphic

Yes. When fully open, a humpback’s mouth is quite spacious - it could fit an entire basketball hoop and could have made a cool twist to the new LeBron James Space Jam movie. Plenty of space for a diver.

Learn more about humpback whales.

Could a humpback swallow a diver?

diver vs. whale throat

Nope, definitely couldn’t choke down a human.

Humpbacks off Cape Cod eat a lot, about 2,000 pounds of food each day, but divers are not on the menu.  Humpbacks are mostly eating a small fish called sandlance which is about the length and width of a pencil. Their seafood diet is fairly limited to small fish as their throat is about the size of a frisbee.

Assuming that this diver was wider than a Frisbee, it is extremely unlikely that this humpback physically could have swallowed him. The diver was likely engulfed in the whale’s mouth and was released once the whale realized it had something other than fish in its mouth.

Did the whale or the diver see this coming?

whale sight

Another resounding no.

Obviously if the diver knew he was about to be engulfed by a whale, he would have moved out of the way. Whale’s eyes are low on the side of their head’s just behind their mouth line. They see what’s next to them but not necessarily what is in front of them.

The water off Cape Cod also has a lot of plankton so the visibility is only about 10-15 feet (3-4.5m) which means they can’t see much pass their flipper. This also means that the diver couldn’t see very far either!

Did the humpback whale try to chew or bite the diver?

Baleen in mouth of a humpback whale
See, no teeth!

Nope, humpbacks don’t have teeth!

While some whales do have teeth, humpback whales don’t have any! Instead, they have a filter feeding system, called baleen. The use their baleen to  filter their food out of the water, just like when you use a strainer to make spaghetti.

Theirs is built into their top jaw and allows them to strain the small fish out of the water. After straining their fish out of the water, humpback whales swallow the fish whole and let their stomach do the rest of the work.

How can you be safe while around feeding humpbacks?

no boat name with humpback birds erased

Give them plenty of space.

Whales don’t mess around when it comes to their food - they need to gain around 5-7 tons while they are in the feeding area so they can live off their blubber stores when they migrate to their winter breeding habitats.  When whales are feeding, they are so focused on catching food they may not pay attention to divers or boaters in their area.

It’s up to you to keep yourself and the whales safe.  If you see whales feeding where you are diving, it’s probably time to climb back on board and safely watch these amazing whales do their thing.

For tips on safe boating around whales, visit SeeASpout.org.

You can also watch whales from one of the many commercial whale watch companies who are part of Whale SENSE and make a commitment to keeping whales safe.

Do you want to get close to a whale?

You could add one to your family by adopting a humpback!

For any media inquiries, give us a call at 508-746-2522.

Share to help us bust some myths!

5 Comments

  1. Fiona Telling on 06/12/2021 at 4:27 pm

    The Diver was rather irresponsible ..Water visibility was not great . Lucky it wasn’t a shark .

    • Tom on 12/25/2021 at 7:16 pm

      How was the diver “rather” irresponsible?

  2. Pamela Strickland on 06/12/2021 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you. I love whales and read as much as I can. I knew this couldn’t have happen. A great story though. Thank you so much for putting this out there.

  3. Karen Mastroianni on 06/13/2021 at 1:44 pm

    Guess the wrong place, wrong time for this diver.. hopefully he will be more aware of his surroundings next time he dives…hes forunate…it could have been a great white, and the outcome night have been alot different…

  4. Don Ellenbrook on 06/25/2021 at 12:39 pm

    Wonderful story. You people do a wonderful job it is a joy to work with around you and with you I live in Oxford Michigan and I have an adopted Whale named Pepper we haven’t seen her in a few years and I’m still hoping for it I have a great grandson who I’m going to teach all I can about the ocean again you people do a wonderful job

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