Kayaker Swallowed by Humpback Whale Tells Her Amazing Survival Story
She and her friend were inside of the whales mouth while kayaking in California.
In the story of Pinocchio, Geppetto, the puppet's father, is swallowed by a giant whale while searching for his son. When Pinocchio hears of this news, he travels deep into the ocean to find the huge swimming mammal that swallowed him up. Miraculously, Pinocchio makes his way inside the whale and reunites with his father. The concept of being swallowed by a whale and surviving might seem like it belongs in the pages of a children's story. However, one woman actually lived through the ordeal.
In 2020, a humpback whale swallowed a woman while kayaking. Somehow, she lived to tell the story. Julie McSorley, 58, was kayaking with her friend, Liz Cottriel, in California's San Luis Obispo in November 2020 and ended up in the mouth of a whale, she tells Slate.
"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," she said, telling her friend that the kayaks were stable. "They'll never dump over. You'll be safe," she told her.
They left at 8 a.m. and were in the water around 8:30. While they didn't see many whales at first, within 30 minutes, they started seeing them in the distance. Two swam toward the harbor, close to the boats. The women were in a double kayak, following the whales with other people in boats. "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," she said.
Liz was holding the camera and videotaping. Eventually, the whales started breaching together. "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," she continued.
"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," she exclaimed.
"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," she added.
They 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," she said.
They captured it all on camera, as her phone was hanging down in the water, contained in a waterproof case, "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."
A retired fireman saw them in the whale's mouth and checked to make sure they were okay. "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."
She didn't figure out that she had actually been inside the whale's mouth until she 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," she said. She added that she was grateful she didn't realize what was happening 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," she said.
She concluded by saying she didn't realize what a big deal it was until it became a big story. "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," she said, calling the experience incredible.
"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."