Human-Eating Whales: Myth or Reality?

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Whales are the largest animal to ever inhabit our planet and they are all strictly carnivorous animals!

From the tiny vaquita porpoise to the colossal blue whale, every single cetacean carries out a diet comprised of meat. 

Just by looking at the size of baleen whales and some of the larger toothed-whale species, it’s certain that several people can comfortably fit inside that belly but do whales eat humans? 

Well, my friend, I hope you’ll find comfort in the fact that there is not a single report of a whale ever eating a human. In fact, for most of the larger species of whale, it is actually impossible to eat a person.

Read along as I answer this question in more detail, as well as many more regarding whales eating or harming people. 

Do Whales Actually Eat People?

Imagine you’re a sailor centuries ago coming face to face with a massive 200-ton blue whale.

Or you’re casually walking on the beach and you come across the impressive sight of the 30 m / 98 feet beached corpse of this behemoth. 

Back when nothing was known about these cetaceans it was easy to come up with all kinds of stories about them and their mysterious lives. 

humpback whale mouth
Photo by Humberto Braojos on Unsplash

Some cultures viewed them as deities, celestial beings who would protect ships and sailors. But others thought of whales as man-eaters and a menace to anyone braving the seas. 

All kinds of stories were produced, most famously “Moby Dick” and of course Jonah and the whale which you will find in the bible and tells the story of how Jonah survived 3 days and nights inside the stomach of a whale sent by God to save him from drowning.

However, the truth is no whale has ever eaten a person and when it comes to the larger species such as the blue, humpback, minke, fin, and gray whales among other baleen whales its physically impossible for them to eat you even if you’re the last piece of meat on earth. 

Remember whales are split into 2 groups:

  • Mysticetes: Baleen whales
  • Odontocetes: Toothed whales

Baleen whales are the largest whale species out there and they can’t swallow anything larger than a softball.

These whales lack teeth and feed via a filter-feeding system by which they engulf large quantities of fish and water and then use their tongue to push out the excess water.

The tiny prey (which are krill, zooplankton, and small schooling fish) remain inside the mouth of the whale thanks to the baleen plates that hang from the top of the jaw.

These plates are hair-like bristles made of keratin responsible for filtering out the water while retaining the food.  

Once the whale has pushed out all the excess water it will proceed to swallow the prey that must fit through its tiny esophagus which is about the size of your closed fist.

Toothed whales, on the other hand, have teeth made for catching and tearing larger prey.

Some species feed exclusively on fish while others hunt for seals, sea lions, giant squid, and more.

However, these whales have shown time and time again that they’re not the tiniest bit interested in eating people.

The only toothed whale large enough to eat a human is the sperm whale and while they are generally unaggressive and have never attacked a person it’s not impossible for one to accidentally eat you if you happen to be caught along with a school fish. 

A highly unlikely scenario that has never happened before but if all the unlucky stars align for someone it’s a far-fetched, but real, possibility. 

Do Whales Harm Humans?

Most cases of whales harming humans have been the result of unlucky accidents and not whale aggression targeted at unsuspecting swimmers.

However, due to the large size of most species accidental collision can, and has, resulted in people getting hurt. Nevertheless, incidents are very rare.

When it comes to attacks there is only one report of an unprovoked orca attack which occurred in 1972 to a surfer who ended up needing over 100 stitches.

Other than that the only seemingly unprovoked attacks on swimmers have come from dolphins and are very rare. 

Can Whales Accidentally Eat People?

The only whale capable of accidentally eating a person is the sperm whale but it has never happened.

There have been cases of humpback whales accidentally engulfing people in their mouths, probably when trying to catch schooling fish but no person has died or resulted seriously hurt by it as the whale is quick to spit them out once it has realized it’s made a mistake.

It’s important to remember that even if the humpback whale wanted to swallow you it’s impossible because of its tiny esophagus. 

Do Killer Whales Eat People?

There has never been a single fatality attributed to a wild killer whale. There has only been one seemingly unprovoked attack in which a killer whale bit a surfer off the coast of California in 1972. This is the only known case of a non-captive orca attacking a human.

There are actually tours offered for adventurous swimmers who want to come face to face with these apex predators where you can swim with wild killer whales.

There has never been a single attack on a swimmer on one of these expeditions. 

Do Whales Like Humans?

Whales are generally friendly and most species seem just as interested in seeing you up close as you are interested in seeing them.

Minke whales, for example, are known to even chase tour boats to different diving spots and engage in prolonged interaction with swimmers.

whale eating
Image: Steven Isaacson via Flickr

As for the species that are not so fond of getting up close and personal with humans they are normally shy and will just swim away, but will not engage in confrontation.

I wouldn’t say whales “like” humans but some species definitely show an interest in us likely because we are just new and exciting stimuli in their environment.

Chances are they would show the same interest in a dog, horse, or anything unusual that is suddenly close to them.

Final Thoughts

I hope that you will sleep easy tonight knowing that a whale has never eaten a person so it’s highly unlikely it will happen to you, me, or anyone anytime soon. 

If you’re lucky enough to witness one of these magnificent creatures in the wild just enjoy every second and keep a safe distance while admiring what must be a truly magical sight.