I Got Gobbled Up by a Whale
AS TOLD TO HEATHER SCHWEDEL
In What It’s Like, people tell us, well, what it’s like to have experiences many of us have not even imagined. In this entry, we spoke to physical therapist Julie McSorley, 58, who is one of the few people on planet Earth—outside of storybooks and the Bible—who have been inside a humpback whale’s mouth and lived to tell the tale. It happened in November 2020 while she was kayaking with her friend Liz Cottriel in California’s San Luis Obispo Bay.
My friend Liz was staying with me, and I convinced her to go out to see the whales. The day before, my husband and I had gone out to Avila Beach early in the morning, and there were a whole bunch of them—15 or 20 out in the harbor. So I came back and told Liz that it would be a great experience for her to try it. She didn’t want to. She’s afraid of sharks and water. I told her, “The kayaks are so stable. They’ll never dump over. You’ll be safe.” Whoops.
We left about 8 in the morning and probably were in the water by 8:30-ish. In the beginning we didn’t see much. It took about 30 minutes before we started to see whales, and most of them were far out in the distance. But there were two of them that swam inland toward the boats in the harbor. Liz and I were in our double kayak and there were a few other people around—we were kind of all following them together. The whales wouldn’t breach or jump out of the water, but they would come up so their humpbacks were out of the water, and we’d paddle over. We got close enough to see them, but not too close to get in their way. We thought that was a safe way to do it. And it was, for a while.
Liz gradually got more comfortable. She was holding the camera and videotaping. Sometimes we’d hear a crackling sound in the distance, which was the bait balls—those are the tightly packed schools of fish that swim around predators. The crackling was the fish of the bait balls coming, jumping on the water. We’d hear it and we’d turn toward that area and see the whales breaching. We got several videos of a couple of whales breaching together, eating the fish far away from us.
We followed them a little further out toward the ocean, past the end of the pier. As the water warmed up, it got more active, but it was almost time for us to go back home because I had to work at noon. We were planning to wait for a minute and see where the whales were and then we’d leave. That’s when the bait ball came up right under us. The fish were jumping into the boat, and we could hear the crackling. I knew a whale was going to come up, and I knew it was gonna be close.
I was looking to the right of the boat and Liz was looking to the left when it happened. Now we know that the top of the whale jaw came up on the left and the bottom of the whale jaw came up directly underneath the boat. At the time I just thought I was being thrown into the water by the whale dumping us out. But no—I was in the whale’s mouth.
It all happened so fast. At first, I just thought I was in the water. Liz went down into its mouth first, and then I kind of slid in as the kayak squirted out. Then the whale closed its mouth and went into the water. I might never have known I was there if I didn’t see the video later. It happened so quickly, and it’s so big that it feels kind of like you’re in a wave, if you’ve ever been body surfing or anything like that.
I couldn’t see anything. I don’t even remember if my eyes were open or closed. It’s hard to see in the ocean without goggles on anyway. My main concern was holding my breath. I didn’t have time to think—all of a sudden, I was just holding my breath. I’m not very good at doing that for long period of time, so I was concerned about that.
We had life jackets on, but I knew the whale had dumped us out of our kayak, so I was thinking, “How far can this whale drag us down?” It could vacuum drag you down with it. I was wondering whether I’d have enough air to get to the top. I was thinking about survival and where my friend was. Because we had our life jackets on, as soon as the whale let us out of its mouth, we popped up to the surface. I didn’t really see anything until then.
The whale actually stayed right under the water. In fact, we captured video on my phone, which was hanging down in the water in a waterproof container, and you could see us on top of the water. Then the phone dropped back in the water and you can see the whale’s mouth—the baleen, the fish, the whites, the inside of the mouth, everything. Later, I went back and analyzed the video I took, and it was about 10 seconds between when the fish came up out of the water and when we popped up. That isn’t very long. It just felt so fast.
As soon as we could talk, we asked each other if the other was OK, and we both said yes. A retired fireman who had watched the whole thing came over. He was checking on our arms and legs because he had seen that we were in the mouth of the whale. He wanted to make sure we were all in one piece. He helped us back into the boat. I was pretty much fine. Liz was a little in shock. She was very white and kind of not saying much for a while. She’d seen the top of the whale’s mouth. She couldn’t tell what it was. She knew it was the whale, but she couldn’t tell if it was the inside of the mouth or the bottom of the whale. She thought she was going to be crushed. That was a terrifying experience for her.
We kayaked back to the shore. On the way back, we realized our keys had gotten dumped into the ocean. We didn’t have a ride home. I switched into problem-solving mode. I had to get to work. I had to figure out how to get everybody home without the car. While this was happening, we were soaking wet, of course. Liz took her shirt and shook it out, and then there were about five or six fish that fell onto the ground. The fish had jumped into our clothes. We started laughing and that was kind of what broke the tension of the whole thing.
I called my office because I was having trouble getting there on time. My husband works there too, so I told reception to let him know that we were dumped in the water by a whale and that I would be late. By the time I got there, he had patients coming in on their phone and showing him the video.
I didn’t figure out that I’d been in the mouth of a whale for a day or so until I watched the videos. The side-angle video was the one that was circulating that day, and I saw it right away. That one looks like it might be an optical illusion. But then the one from the back angle, if you slow it down just a little bit, you can see us sliding right into the whale’s mouth as he closes it and the only thing sticking out of the mouth is my right arm. I guess it happens to sea lions a lot and those kinds of animals because whales and sea lions are feeding on the same fish. The throat of a whale is about the size of a grapefruit. Anything that’s larger than that just kind of comes out. Thank goodness for that. We were in more danger of drowning or being squashed. But we didn’t know that at the time. If I knew what was actually happening, I probably would have been a lot more scared for sure. I don’t panic very easily, but that’s pretty major.
Weirdly enough, it didn’t seem like a big deal that day. I was surprised at how big a story it became. Within two days, my Facebook was just flooded with news people and reporters. I just didn’t realize how small the world is, I guess. My friends in other countries were calling and texting because they saw it there.
Mostly, I think that if something bad were supposed to happen to me, it would have happened. I don’t feel any fear or anything from it. I definitely have respect for whales and I think they’re just absolutely gorgeous and wonderful creatures. And kayaks aren’t going to hurt the whales. I don’t think that we did anything wrong. I mean, they say now that you should stay a football field away from them, and I’d stay even further away now. But they’re not looking to hurt you. Killer whales might be different. Humpback whales are huge, but they’re pretty mellow creatures.
I think it was incredible. I’m not sure if Liz agrees, but I feel very lucky to have had that experience. I got to be so close to wildlife and I got through it unharmed. It was amazing. With all the media attention, I have magazines and stuff to memorialize it, and my family can have that forever. That’s kind of cool. And now I feel like I have a spiritual animal. I feel a connection to whales. I was always into owls before, but now I’ve got whales and owls. I have pictures of them in my house. People give me whale things. I have a piece of baleen that someone gave me from Alaska. It was a good experience overall.