Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Whale tales: Old and new

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Jonah and the Whale. Pieter Lastman, 1621. Google Art Project via Wikimedia. 

“Oh, are you from Wales? Do you know a fella named Jonah? He used to live in whales for a while.”
– Groucho Marx

The biblical story of the prophet Jonah and the whale is well known. Jonah does not want to accept a mission God has given him. He flees, boards a ship, and gets thrown overboard during a storm. God sends a “great fish” to swallow him. He stays in the belly of the fish for three days, praying and repenting, and the fish vomits him out.

The Hebrew text reads dag gadol, “a great fish.” When this text was translated into Greek, it became kétos megos, “a huge whale,” or “a huge sea-monster.” The Book of Jonah in the Hebrew Bible still uses “a great fish,” as does the Christian Old Testament and the Qur’an. In the 1534 English translation of the Bible, the “greate fyshe” became a whale.1,2 It is beyond the scope of this article to comment on the veracity or symbolic meaning of biblical texts.

Whales may be divided into two major classes. Toothed whales (odontocetes) have teeth but are unable to chew, and thus swallow enormous chunks of food. The sperm whale belongs to this class. The other group of whales are the baleen whales (mysticetes), or filter-feeding whales. These mammals have plates or “combs” of baleen, a calcified keratin, in their mouths. They open their mouths, take in huge quantities of seawater, and expel the water through the baleen filter. The filter traps plankton, krill (little crustaceans), and small fishes, which make up the baleen whale’s diet. The humpback whale, which can grow to seventeen meters long and weigh forty tons, belongs to this group.3

In more recent times, a story first circulated in the newspaper the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1891 about a “modern Jonah.” A sailor named James Bartley4 (1870–1909) fell overboard and was supposedly swallowed by a whale. When the whale was caught three days later, Bartley was in the animal’s stomach. Other sources5,6 say he was in the whale for fifteen hours. He was alive, his skin bleached white, and he was blind. The whole story is a fabrication. The ship mentioned in the tale was not a whaler, and there was no James Bartley onboard.

Gray whale feeding on herring with baleen visible, 2000. Photo by Donovan Girard, courtesy of K. Lihou and R. Graham. From N. Pyenson & D. Lindberg, (2011). “What Happened to Gray Whales during the Pleistocene? The Ecological Impact of Sea-Level Change on Benthic Feeding Areas in the North Pacific Ocean,” PloS ONE vol. 6 no. 7, (2011). 

Still, the story was repeated, with modifications, in the 1927 Princeton Theological Review.7 A sailor is swallowed by a sperm whale, which was caught and killed after three days. The sailor was found in the whale’s stomach, unconscious but alive. The skin of his face, neck, and hands was bleached. He was revived and was otherwise unharmed. According to biblical scholar Gerhard Aalders in 2004, this story has “recently been proved false.”8,9 The story was repeated in various publications yearly from 1928–1938, 1944–1948, and in 1953 and 1985.10

In March 2019, conservationist and photographer Ranier Schimpf was diving off the coast of South Africa. He was photographing sharks circling a huge school of sardines when a whale appeared from below and opened its mouth near the surface of the water to swallow the fish. The whale accidentally took Schimpf’s upper half in its mouth. The whale submerged and them spit Schimpf out, unharmed. He estimated that he was in the whale’s mouth for “a matter of seconds.” The whale was a Bryde’s whale, a filter feeder, luckily for Schimpf. The esophagus of baleen whales, anyway, has a diameter too small to admit a man. Schimpf remarked laughingly when interviewed that his teenaged son is named Jonas.11,12,13

More recently, Michael Packard was diving for lobsters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in June 2021. A humpback whale took Packard (who was wearing scuba gear) in his mouth for an estimated thirty to forty seconds. He felt as if he had been “hit by a freight train.” He too, was spit out. He had a number of bruises and a dislocated knee. He wondered if it had been a young, inexperienced whale.14,15

It appears that for whales, humans are simply “bycatch” (in this case, the wrong species), and fortunately, spit out.


  1. “Book of Jonah.” Wikipedia.
  2. Aisha Stacey. “Prophet Jonah.” The Religion of Islam, last modified June 15, 2009. https://www.islamreligion.com/articles/2548/prophet-jonah.
  3. “Whale.” Wikipedia.
  4. “James Bartley.” Wikipedia.
  5. “Swallowed by a whale.” From True Tales of Terror on the High Seas. YCA’s Reading Room. https://www.ycaol.com/swallowed.htm.
  6. Kaushik Patowary. “James Bartley: The sailor who got swallowed by a whale and survived.” Amusing Planet, January 13, 2023. https://www.amusingplanet.com/2023/01/james-bartley-sailor-who-got-swallowed.html.
  7. Ambrose Wilson. “The sign of the prophet Jonah and its modern confirmations.” Princeton Theological Review, 25, 1927. https://commons.ptsem.edu/id/princetontheolog2541arms-dmd005.
  8. Gerhard Aalders. “The problem of the Book of Jonah.” Biblicalstudies.org.uk, 2004. https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/tp/jonah_aalders.pdf.
  9. Edward Davis. “A whale of a tale: Fundamentalist fish stories.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 43, 1991.
  10. Richard Woolveridge. “Did a nineteenth-century sailor get swallowed by a sperm whale and survive?” Australian Geographic, March 2, 2017.
  11. “Bryde’s whale.” Wikipedia.
  12. Agence France-Presse. “South African man escapes jaws of whale.” The Guardian, March 11, 2019.
  13. Scott Stump. “Diver recounts panic of almost being ‘swallowed’ alive by a massive whale.” Today, March 11, 2019. https://www.today.com/news/diver-survives-almost-being-swallowed-15-ton-whale-t150169.
  14. Jaclyn Peiser. “A humpback whale swallowed a lobster diver whole and spit him out alive: ‘It tried to eat me.’” Washington Post, Seattle Times, June 14, 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/a-humpback-whale-swallowed-a-lobster-diver-whole-and-spit-him-out-alive-it-tried-to-eat-me/.
  15. 60 Minutes Australia. “Swallowed by a whale? This man’s incredible tale of survival.” YouTube video, 27:00, July 11, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saZCz01WSO4.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.