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What If You Were Swallowed Alive?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Getting swallowed alive is a worst nightmare scenario. Whether you're in the jaws of a shark or crocodile, forced through the digestive system of a reticulated python, or helplessly trapped inside a whale... It's a terrible situation to be in. But, what would actually happen?

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What if You Were Swallowed Alive?

Stories of giant, carnivorous monsters have captivated and frightened us for centuries. From the greedy cyclops Polyphemus to real-world crocodiles alive today, humans are universally scared of one day being devoured. But, could it actually happen? And what would it be like if it did?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if you were swallowed alive?

First off, which animal are you even being swallowed alive by? Creatures on Earth large enough to accomplish the feat are few and far between, but whales are what probably first comes to mind. Our ancient mythologies and classic stories are full of tales about enormous sea creatures eating people. “Jonah and the Whale”, from the Old Testament, is one of the oldest and best-known examples. When Jonah fails to go to Nineveh, God sends a “giant fish” to eat him. He lives inside the fish for three days, before being vomited back onto shore. Elsewhere, there’s “Pinocchio”, much of which plays out inside Monstro, a strange combination of a blue and sperm whale, and a makeshift home for Geppetto when he becomes trapped.

In the real world, there’s only really one prominent story of a whale ‘eating somebody alive’ - although many doubt that it’s true. In 1891, the British sailor James Bartley is said to have been eaten alive by the same sperm whale that he had been trying to hunt. The rest of Bartley’s crew assumed he was dead but, after catching the whale two days later and seeing movement in its belly, they allegedly cut and freed Bartley, who had survived inside it for 36 hours. It is a mostly unsupported story, but other than Bartley, there are actually zero records of whales swallowing humans at all, alive or not.

Whether it’s even physically possible for a whale to swallow a human really depends on the species. Since blue whales are gigantic, you might assume it’d be easy for them to eat a person – but you’d only be half right. The blue whale could fit at least four-hundred people inside its mouth, but crucially, its oesophagus is only 10 centimetres wide - so actually swallowing them isn’t going to happen. This is because blue whales are filter feeders, which means they use bristle-like structures known as baleen plates to sift the water out of their mouths, leaving only the tiny krill to eat.

The same applies for all other large, filter feeder whales; if it has baleen plates, it doesn’t have a throat wide enough to swallow even the smallest of humans. Which isn’t to say that you wouldn’t still have major problems if you did find yourself inside this type of whale’s mouth, mostly because there isn’t any air. With scuba gear you’d stand a small chance, since the whale could just spit you back out. But, that would more than likely be fatal in itself because whales spend a lot of their time in deep, deep water - with blue whales diving an average of 100 meters to hunt, and humpbacks diving double that. Humans generally aren’t advised to ever dive deeper than 40 metres, so even if the actual whale spared you, you’d be crushed to death by the water pressure.

Your worries rapidly increase with toothed whales, though. As a sperm whale, for example, actually could swallow you whole. Probably the most notorious fictional whale in the world, Moby Dick, is a sperm whale, and these animals have been known to swallow a giant squid in one. In general, they are by far the most likely to eat you, though they would typically take their time to chew first.

Such is a sperm whale’s threat level that it’s even speculated that the giant eyes of the giant squid have evolved solely for protection against sperm whale attacks. If a regular, land-dwelling human wound up in the water with one, the outlook’s not good. Say you were lucky enough not to get dismembered by the whale’s teeth (which can weigh up to one kilo each), you’d then face the familiar lack of air inside the whale’s mouth. Next, if you were somehow still alive (which you more than likely wouldn’t be), you’d be passed into the whale’s stomach, to be bathed in its deadly stomach acid and digestive enzymes. Without scuba gear, your body would quickly decompose. With scuba gear you’d still die, but you’d also pose a pretty major problem for the whale itself, since it wouldn’t be able to digest your wetsuit or oxygen tanks. It would also die before it could pass you through its digestive system, leaving your remains part-digested within its remains.

There’s more than just whales that technically could swallow you (but probably wouldn’t), though. Extremely large Great White Sharks and killer whales might also try to force large parts of their kill through their digestive systems, although their prey is almost always very much dead before it makes it that far. In fact, even the dinosaurs would have had a tough time devouring a whole person without tearing them apart first. A T-Rex wouldn’t have been able to swallow someone all at once, and even its larger counterpart, the Spinosaurus, would’ve struggled. With prehistoric sea monsters, even the much-feared megalodon weren’t as large as modern-day sperm whales, let alone blue whales. And then there was Livyatan Melvillei – a giant sperm whale named after the Biblical Leviathan and “Moby Dick” author Herman Melville – but, say in an alternate universe you ended up being eaten by one of those, you’d again in all likelihood be killed by its bite (rather than swallowed alive).

Saltwater crocodiles are a more contemporary carnivore capable of swallowing a human being or larger - with various viral videos claiming to show killer crocs part-way through consuming whole animal carcasses. Aggressive and enormous Nile crocodiles are reportedly responsible for as many as 700 attacks on humans every year, two-thirds of which are fatal - although, again, it’s usually the teeth and jaws which spell the end for the croc’s victim.

Meanwhile, another reptile synonymous with ‘swallowing its prey whole’ is the reticulated python. While pythons eating humans is extremely rare, one 2018 horror story told how an Indonesian woman was crushed and consumed, her fate discovered when the bloated python was killed, and its body cut open. Human or not, pythons do typically crush their prey to death before eating it, so the chances of being ‘swallowed alive’ are exceptionally slim. That said, it can take weeks until pythons fully digest their food, so if you hypothetically did wake up inside a snake, you could fight your way out. Theoretically.

The odds are never in favour of the human prey, though. Whether it’s a whale, crocodile, snake or something else entirely, the prospect of being swallowed alive brings with it the threat of being torn to pieces, swiftly suffocated, or else horrifically boiled into nothingness by stomach acid. And that’s what would happen if you were swallowed alive.

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