Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Was Jonah Taken by a Humpback Whale?

The account of Jonah and the whale is one of the most memorable stories in the Bible. To a child, it captures the imagination like the story of Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den, or of Noah gathering all the animals – tame and fierce alike – into the ark. It isn’t a story that one forgets.

As a young biology student, however, I confess that I occasionally had my doubts about some of the details as I began thinking about marine ecology, and especially about the specifics of whale biology. I know that many other Christian thinkers have had their doubts as well. Many of us have come to understand the story in metaphorical ways.

This is easy to do because the New Testament almost invites this kind of interpretation. In the Gospel of Matthew Jonah’s three days and three nights inside the whale foreshadowed the three days and three nights that Christ spent inside the earth prior to His resurrection (Matthew 12: 39-40). Many devout thinkers have interpreted this to mean that Jonah didn’t really get swallowed by a whale.

This is about all the thought I was prone to give the account. On the few occasions when I found myself needing to tell the story to children, I tended to let somebody else give the details. I just wasn’t very comfortable explaining them literally. In passing years, I didn’t pay much attention to the Book of Jonah at all. And then things changed.

I was reading Roger Payne’s fascinating book Among Whales. Dr. Payne is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on these giant and intriguing creatures. He has spent most of his life watching them, listening to them, and otherwise informing himself about them from the vast literature that continues to accumulate.

I was reading Payne’s book without a thought in the world of Jonah. I was reading it because I love to read, and because Payne’s book is very worthwhile reading. Imagine my surprise when Payne mentions, almost in passing, that an acquaintance of his was once almost swallowed by a whale.  

Here is the passage. “I have a friend who was studying humpback whales in Alaska when one of them rose beneath his boat. The next thing he knew he and the boat were inside its widely opened mouth, a situation that only lasted for a second as the whale was apparently as surprised as he and instantly backed off. But he observed that when his [small boat] was in the whale’s mouth it was not grounded on the whale’s jaws but was floating freely, with water under the keel.”

This story was mentioned to demonstrate the very large capacity of a baleen whale’s mouth – or more properly, its buccal cavity. This cavity can make up over a third of the whales body. Its immensity can be appreciated in an interesting picture of a full-grown right whale skeleton next to Roy Chapman Andrews in the American Museum of Natural History. The man is maybe as tall as the whale’s closed mouth. And the buccal cavity extends even deeper into the animal. More than a dozen men could fit inside such a place.  

In fact the large mouth of baleen whales can be quite a bit larger than even this picture shows. In a recent study documented in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, baleen whale mouths were shown to increase allometrically. This means that as a whale increases in bodily size, the size of the head grows disproportionately larger. This kind of growth is more commonly seen, for example, in the mandibles of stag beetles. Normal or undersized males have fairly non-descript mandibles projecting forward from their heads. Somewhat larger alpha males, on the other hand, can have massively larger mandibles. The size of a baleen whales mouth is certainly not a criterion for dismissing the story of Jonah.

These large mouths of baleen whales (including humpback whales) make them quite a bit different than the typical animal most of us imagine when we think of whales. They don’t have teeth like Moby Dick and are not shaped with the high forehead that is typical of most children’s storybooks about whales. Instead, baleen whales have a large “jaw” with long fleshy wrinkles that are capable of greatly expanding.

I recently spent an afternoon looking at pictures of whales from Bibles and children’s story books about Jonah. There is quite a variety of sea creatures depicted. And no one clearly accepted species predominates. I expect that this stems from our general cultural lack of taxonomic precision. When the Old Testament says that a fish swallowed Jonah, and the New Testament says that a whale did, it’s obvious that we’re somewhat less than clear on the species involved.

Walker’s Mammals of the World recognizes 79 species in the Order Cetacea (which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) worldwide. When large true (bony) fish are added to the list, and perhaps even sharks, the possible list of candidates becomes quite large. It’s no wonder that nobody seems to have decided in favor of any one species.

Gustave DorĂ©’s painting Jonah Cast Forth by the Whale is perhaps the most famous painting of the story. It is depicted in family Bibles around the world. Despite the title of the painting, DorĂ© pictures a creature with fins and a tail that are clearly those of a bony fish, albeit a large one.

Another depiction of a true fish (again, despite the title) is Giulio Pippi’s Jonah and the Whale. The creature in this painting continues with the bony fish theme but with an exaggerated mouth. And the creature itself looks a bit monstrous, perhaps reminiscent of the fear that ancient people’s often had of unknown sea creatures.

Children’s books and paintings, though equally difficult to categorize, do seem to favor whales over fishes. A typical example is Jonah and the Whale by Roberta Rivera. This is clearly a depiction of a sperm whale with its large head and relatively small mouth lined with teeth.

It’s obvious that we haven’t decided one way or another about what kind of whale swallowed Jonah. The truth is that we haven’t really given much thought at all about the different kinds of whales that live in the world’s oceans and seas. I remember some time ago using the word “rorqual” while playing a word game. It is a general word for baleen whales – and not uncommonly used among student of marine biology – yet nobody had heard of it before.

The incident made me aware of just how little most of us know about marine taxonomy. If it’s true that most of us don’t even know the names of the trees in our neighborhood – and we don’t; and if it’s also true that your neighbor has no idea of the kinds of birds (even very common birds) singing in his own yard; what is the likelihood that any one of us will know the kinds of whales in a distant sea? It’s not very likely at all.

But, in truth, our general ignorance of whales has not been restricted to non-biologists. For hundreds of years, the only real knowledge we had of these amazing creatures was gained from whalers and from the occasional dead animal that washed onto a beach. And this knowledge tended to be mixed with older fears of unknown monsters of the deep.

If you combine this level of ignorance with our modern disregard of sacred texts, it’s little wonder that most educated people find the story of a man being swallowed by a whale, and then surviving, unlikely. But to be honest, this doubt has not been grounded in real whale biology. It has been based on our own imagination.

My argument is that we are beginning to learn enough about these marine animals to conjecture more thoughtfully about the whale that captured Jonah. In particular, the feeding behavior and respiratory biology of humpback whales makes them a likely candidate. Let me explain further. 

As I mentioned above, the large buccal capacity of humpback whales is an adaptation that allows them to capture vast amounts of small crustaceans (known collectively as krill) and fish which make up their diet. This is done when a whale moves forward through the water with its mouth open. The expanding jaw allows the whale to pull in water instead of only pushing it in front of its mouth.

Imagine trying to catch fish with a bucket. It just doesn’t work. Using the bucket below water only pushes water and, unless a fish gets confused and actually swims into the bucket, the effort is a waste of time. The expansion of a baleen whale’s mouth corrects for this problem by actually pulling water – with accompanying krill – into its mouth. It was probably a whale feeding in this way that picked up Payne’s friend by accident.

Once the baleen whale’s mouth is full, it begins pushing water out through its teeth, somewhat like a boy I once knew who could project a stream of water through the spacing of his front teeth. A baleen whale does this through teeth that are specifically adapted to this purpose. The teeth are long and thin and spaced just right to let water through while keeping the krill inside – acting like a giant sieve.

This giant sieve is called a whalebone or baleen – hence the name of these kinds of whales. You may have heard of whalebones being used in previous centuries in the manufacture of corsets. The long, thin and flexible nature of these bones was ideal for upper body support. In fact the popularity of whalebone corsets proved troublesome to baleen whales as their populations dwindled from over-hunting.

But I digress. The spacing of these long teeth is such that small animals can move through them into the mouth but then are unable to exit because of a sophisticated network of long thin fibers that grow on the inside of the whalebone. Sometimes baleen whales will feed by just moving through the water with its baleen exposed. At other times, it feeds by actively taking in water with its mouth agape.

One of the most interesting behaviors of the humpback whale, especially relating to the story of Jonah, is the activity known to biologists as lunge-feeding. This is a form of feeding that often brings whales to the surface from hundreds of feet below.

Often, the lunge-feeding whale rises in a fairly slow spiral pattern while blowing a cloud of small bubbles through the narrow openings of the baleen. This rising cloud does something unusual to small fish and krill. It confuses them and keeps them from swimming away.

This seems to work because the cloud of bubbles actually decreases the density of water. Imagine a small boat that floats easily on the water (floating because the water is denser than the boat). Now imagine that this same boat were to be dropped through the air. It would obviously fall because it is denser than air. A rising cloud of air bubbles has the effect of creating a place that is somewhere between the density of water and the density of air. A boat, if floating in a tall narrow tank of water, will sink if bubbles are infused into the tank, even though it is lighter than water. It isn’t lighter than the water and air mix of a cloud of bubbles.

A humpback whale forcing bubbles through its teeth creates a sort of gravity field that must make small creatures feel like they are falling. Instead of swimming quickly away they freeze and the whale swimming up from below has a concentrated mouthful of food waiting that it captures by opening its mouth wide as it nears the surface.

This form of lunge-feeding does something else, though, that intrigues me about the Biblical account. It temporarily blinds the whale to anything moving on the surface. This would likely be an important consideration if, in fact, it was a baleen whale that swallowed Jonah. Baleen whales would normally never capture a human, or any other creature of comparable size. Their body is just not built to be able to eat such a thing. So an active form of feeding that is both blind and brings a whale to the surface – lunge-feeding that is – becomes a real possibility in the case of Jonah.

Another scenario of how Jonah might have been swallowed, and the one that most of us imagine, involves a toothed whale, like the sperm whale. These whales actively hunt other animals, capturing and masticating them in their (relatively smaller) mouth and then swallowing them. This sort of behavior is one of the reasons many people tend to disbelieve in the literalness of the Book of Jonah. For my part, I could not imagine anybody living within the highly acidic stomach of any mammal (even a giant stomach like that of a whale) without air for three days.

This is one of the reasons why I think the humpback whale is a much more likely candidate. It has an extremely large buccal cavity that is mostly free of stomach acids and, even more significantly, it contains a supply of oxygenated air.

This air in a whale’s mouth is a bit unusual. Whales, unlike other mammals don’t breathe through their mouth. They have a breathing hole on top of their head – the blowhole – that leads directly to the lungs, bypassing the mouth. A toothed whale, like a sperm whale, never needs to open its mouth to bring in oxygen. If some air-breathing creature were ever to be eaten alive, it would not be able to breathe in such a place.

But humpback whales are different. Their unique form of bubble feeding begins by air moving into their mouths. And it is the movement of this air through the whalebone, with its narrow openings, that create the cloud of small bubbles that works to confuse their food. How the air actually got to the whale’s mouth was a mystery until just a few years ago.

Writing in the Anatomical Record, researchers Reidenberg and Laitman reported a trough-shaped epiglottis in humpback whales that can “facilitate channeling air from the larynx to the oral cavity.” This mechanism is basically an opening in the air tube that connects the blowhole with the lungs and can be opened when the whale needs air in its mouth. When a whale is actively feeding using bubble clouds, there would be a significant amount of air moving into the mouth.

This to me is a remarkable combination of traits that make the story of Jonah much more interesting. It appears that a man could very well survive in the back of a humpback whale’s mouth for days. Not that it would be a pleasant experience, far from it, but the oxygen needed to survive would be available.

Some may argue that surviving in a whale’s mouth is contrary to the Biblical text, which says clearly that Jonah survived in the “belly of a fish”. My answer is two-fold. First, the length of the humpback’s buccal cavity is so long that it extends well into the area that might be considered the “belly” in other organisms. Second, if you open your dictionary you will find that the word “belly” can refer to the entire underside of the body of certain vertebrates likes snakes and fish. I don’t see this as a contradiction.

Another possible criticism that occasionally comes up is that whales don’t occur in the Mediterranean Sea, where the story of Jonah would certainly have taken place. This argument may be true today for some times of the year but it isn’t valid overall. Because of large-scale over-hunting of whales in modern times, humpback whales no longer frequent waters that they formerly would have. Their numbers are too few. Yet even today, humpback whales do find their way to the Mediterranean Sea during their breeding season. They don’t breed or raise young there, but they do move from deeper water and begin swimming near land as they work their way to their breeding grounds. It is presumed that the greater number of whales in former centuries would have seen many more whales there than we see today. Walker’s reference book of the mammals of the world indicates that the humpback whale “M[egaptera]. novaeangliae, occurs in all oceans and adjoining seas of the world.” 

I am also intrigued by Diane Ackerman’s theory that it was the sound of the humpback whale’s song – a unique sound among whales – that caused the ancient Greek sailors so much fear. Sailing throughout the Mediterranean Sea, these sailors were convinced that mythical creatures called Sirens would lure them to their death with their eerie songs. Perhaps it was the song of the humpback whale that was responsible for this.

All things considered, the story of Jonah being taken by a whale is still remarkable – and perhaps incredible to many. It doesn’t help that poorly documented accounts of modern whalers being swallowed by whales get repeated and rightfully criticized by skeptics. And then there are the outright spoofs that are so easy to find on the internet. It is not surprising that a thoughtful Bible-revering student would doubt such a story.

Like most historic accounts from ancient times, the details of Jonah’s story are not known. I have no intention of insisting that he was swallowed by a humpback whale. And yet I have to admit that I am pleasantly surprised by what our modern studies of these fascinating creatures reveals. Far from invalidating the Biblical story, they continue to render it an increasing plausibility. 

But this is also a cautionary tale. It’s quite easy to disregard many stories found in sacred texts because they appear to be quite fanciful. With our perceived modern objectivity and expertise, stories like Jonah and the whale have been quickly discounted as nothing more than fairy tales. Often it takes a bit more probing to find that these stories have more to them than a superficial reading with quickly formed assumptions might suggest. It should make us ponder a little bit when we insist on understanding sacred texts with a presumption of modern superiority. The ancients weren’t as stupid and gullible as we sometimes make them out to be.


Roger Payne’s Among Whales was published by Scribner (1995). The reference to his friend’s engulfment is on page 49. The picture of Roy Chapman Andrews next to the right whale is from Walker’s Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition, Volume II by Ronald M. Nowak (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1991). On whale head allometry see Goldbogen, Potvin and Shadwick (2010) Skull and buccal cavity allometry increase mass-specific engulfment capacity in fin whales, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 277 (no. 1683): 861-868. On air movement into the humpback whale’s mouth see “Blowing bubbles: an aquatic adaptation that risks protection of the respiratory tract in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)” by J.S. Reidenberg and J.T. Laitman in Anatomical Record (June,2007) Volume 290(6): 569-580. Diane Ackerman’s note on Greek Sirens is in The Moon by Whale Light published by Random House, in 1991.

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