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Have any real-life Jonahs been swallowed by whales and lived?

September 14, 2001

Dear Cecil:

I am dubious about a claim my girlfriend made about a human swallowed by a whale and surviving, and I'd like to know if you can help me research it. Apparently she heard as a child that in the UK in the 1800s a man fell overboard and was swallowed by a whale. A day or two later the whale was caught by a crew that had no idea there was a man inside. They were surprised when they saw something moving as they were cutting up the whale and rescued the man. The only harm to him was that he was bleached by the stomach juices. She claims that she heard the same story 40 years later on a Christian radio station. I told her those were not credible sources. Thanks for any help you can give.

Cecil replies:

Walter first put this question to Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which sent him to me with the comment, "If you can get an answer to this question anywhere, it will be here." Always glad to help with the dirty work, gang. Do I get a free subscription?

Various attempts have been made over the years to come up with real-life Jonahs, but the most famous, and undoubtedly the one your girl heard about, is James Bartley. As claimed in numerous religious tracts, whaling books, and the like, Bartley was a seaman aboard the whaling ship Star of the East. In February 1891, while the ship was near the Falkland Islands, a lookout spotted a sperm whale several miles off. Two boats were launched; one succeeded in harpooning the whale, but the second was upended by the whale's tail and its crew tossed into the water. One man drowned and another, Bartley, could not be found.

The whale was killed and hauled to the side of the ship, where the crew set to work carving up the carcass. The next morning they hoisted the stomach on deck and were surprised to see signs of life. Inside they found the unconscious Bartley, who they doused with seawater and soon revived. For two weeks he was a raving lunatic, but by the end of the third week he'd fully recovered. Bartley recalled being swallowed by a great darkness, then slipping along a smooth passage until he came to a larger space. He felt slimy stuff around him and realized he'd been swallowed by the whale. He could breathe, but the heat sucked the energy out of him and eventually he passed out. The only lasting effect of the incident was that the skin of his face, neck, and hands was bleached to the color of parchment by the whale's gastric juices.

Cool story. Did it really happen? Two scholarly papers have attacked the question, Edward B. Davis's "A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories" (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 1991) and R. Gambell and S.G. Brown's "James Bartley — A Modern Jonah or Joke?" (Investigations on Cetacea, 1993). Here's what they say:

(1) The story has appeared over the years in numerous publications, both secular and religious. An 1896 story in the New York Times gives essentially the account above and says it came from "The Mercury of South Yarmouth, England, in October 1891," but it sounds a little skeptical.

(2) The Yarmouth Mercury of August 22, 1891, carried a story entitled "Man in a Whale's Stomach / Rescue of a Modern Jonah," which gives the account above. There's no byline nor any indication that the writer spoke with Bartley, the ship's captain, or any of the sailors.

(3) In June 1891 a rorqual whale was beached near the town of Gorleston, just south of Great Yarmouth, and was killed, stuffed, and exhibited around England.

(4) Sperm whales are capable of swallowing humans. They live on squid, which they swallow whole. In 1955 a 405-pound squid was removed intact from the belly of a sperm whale.

(5) In 1906, Lloyd's of London reported that Star of the East, a British ship, had set sail from Auckland, New Zealand, in December 1890 and arrived in New York in April 1891, so it might have been near the Falkland Islands in February. However, it was not a whaling ship, and there was no James Bartley on the crew list.

(6) Also in 1906, the wife of J.B. Killam, captain of the Star of the East, wrote that she'd been with her husband all the years he commanded the ship and that no one had been lost overboard during that time. "The sailor has told a great sea yarn," she said.

What do we make of all this? Davis speculates that the story was cooked up by some pale fellow to take advantage of publicity surrounding the Gorleston whale exhibition and that it's been passed along by the gullible ever since. He's probably right — how could anyone survive overnight in a whale's stomach without suffocating? But in the absence of a smoking gun, or a quotation from Bartley, I guess we'll never know for sure.

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