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