- Cover Story
I Survived! Being Swallowed By A Whale
When faced with certain death, you need bravery, determination—and plenty of luck. This is the story of one who lived to tell the tale.
I live with my husband, Tyrone McSorley, in San Luis Obispo, California, about five kilometres from the beach. Every few years, the humpback whales come into the bay for a few days while they’re migrating. November 2020 was one of those times, so we took out our yellow double kayak to watch the wildlife. We paddled out the length of the pier and saw seals, dolphins and about 20 whales feeding on silver fish. We were in awe watching these graceful behemoths—each one about 50 feet long—breach and spray through their blowholes. We laughed when they turned their side fins so that it looked as if they were waving at us. At the time, my friend Liz Cottriel was staying with us.
The next day, I asked her if she wanted to go out on the water to see them.
“No way,” said Liz, now 65. She was not an experienced kayaker and was terrified that the kayak would over-turn while we were surrounded by hungry whales. “There’s nothing to worry about,” I assured her. “The craft is stable, and we can turn back any time.” After some cajoling, she finally agreed to join me. I didn’t want her to miss this magnificent experience and regret it later.
Liz and I got out on the water at 8:30 the following morning. There were already about 15 other kayakers and paddle boarders in the bay. It was warm for November—about 19 degrees Celsius—so we wore T-shirts and leggings. After a half-hour, we had our first whale sighting just past the pier: two humpbacks swimming towards us.
How amazing to be that close to a creature that size, I thought as the whale dipped under the waterline.
When whales go down after breaching, they leave what looks like an oil slick on the water. I figured if we paddled towards that spot, we’d be safe from the whales, since they’d just left. We followed them at a distance—or what I thought was a distance. I later found out that it’s recommended to keep 300 feet away.
We were more like 60 feet away. Suddenly, we were being pelted. A tightly packed swarm of fish, known as a bait ball, started jumping out of the water into our kayak. Their movement sounded like crackling glass all around us.
What should have been a comical moment was actually terrifying. Their actions meant they were escaping the whales, which meant that we needed to get out of there too. But before we could paddle to safety, our kayak was lifted out of the water about six feet, bracketed by massive jaws. Liz and I slipped out of the kayak into the whale’s mouth. My body was engulfed except for my right arm and paddle. Liz, meanwhile, was looking up directly at the whale’s upper jaw, which she later described as a big white wall.
As the whale’s mouth closed, Liz thrust her arm up to block it from crushing her. I felt the creature begin to dive and had no idea how deep we'd be dragged. Still, I didn’t panic. I just kept thinking, I’ve got to fight this. I’ve got to breathe.
Whales have enormous mouths but tiny throats. Anything they can’t swallow they spit right out. That included us. As soon as the whale dipped underwater, it ejected us, and we popped back up onto the surface about a foot apart. The entire ordeal lasted only about 10 seconds.
A few kayakers paddled over. One was a retired firefighter, who asked us if we had all of our limbs. “We thought you were dead!” he said.
We were not, of course. But I am much more aware of the power of nature and the ocean than I was before. Liz was shaken up, likening the ordeal to a near-death experience, and she says her whale-watching days are over. But even she had to laugh when she got home that afternoon and realized she’d brought back a souvenir. When she pulled off her shirt, six silverfish flopped out.
—By Julie McSorley, 56, physical therapist
Check out three other stories from the series I Survived!