PROVINCETOWN — Cape Codders have become acutely aware that whales in the Gulf of Maine face perilous struggles with ocean debris, especially discarded rope that obstructs their paths and entangles their bodies.
PROVINCETOWN — Mike Packard’s experience inside a humpback whale last week is the story that had everything: charismatic heroes, an adventurous setting, an enormous animal co-lead, a happy ending — and, most important, humanity’s eternal, evolution-rigged fear of being eaten alive.
Nearly every American media outlet carried the story: Packard was swallowed by a humpback whale while scuba diving for lobster. Or wait, hold on, not swallowed, definitely not “swallowed” — gallons of ink were spilled on the inaptness of that word to this case. Rather, Packard was engulfed by the open mouth of a young humpback whale, who held him there for about 30 seconds before spitting him out again, dive suit and all.
The amount of time is an estimate, of course, but enough seconds ticked by for Packard to realize that his legs were pinned but not shredded, to understand he’d been scooped up by an animal that wasn’t a shark, to know he was inside a whale, and to consider there wasn’t much he could do about it, and he might well die there.
Fortunately, by that point, the animal had also realized something. The whale swam to the surface, shook Packard loose in full sight of his boatmate Josiah Mayo and nearby charter fisherman Joe Francis, and fled the scene. Mayo and Francis hauled Packard aboard, radioed the rescue squad, and unloaded him at MacMillan Pier with what they thought might be broken legs.
(Happily, it turned out he had a painful sprained knee and some serious bruising of the upper legs, but no broken bones.)
This story has been told on television, radio, and late-night shows. It’s been in newspapers worldwide, and even on the cover of the New York Post (headline: “I Was Nearly Krilled!”). The attention of the press has been overwhelming, according to Mayo; on Monday, the boatmates were in contact with both Jimmy Kimmel and Anderson Cooper about interviews.
Nonetheless, Mayo spoke with the Independent and provided more details about the engulfment.
“Honestly, we’re all lucky this happened to someone like Michael,” said Mayo. “If this was just some yahoo in a kayak, we would still be arguing about whether any of this really happened. There are the eyewitnesses,” he added, but mainly, he said, Packard’s personality and reputation make the difference: “Mike’s character speaks for itself.”
Diving for lobsters can be hazardous even without whales around. It’s been almost exactly 10 years since Sean Strakele died underwater while lobster diving in Herring Cove. It was Packard who found Strakele’s body two days later, only about 100 yards from where he’d descended.
Packard has seen great white sharks out there, as well. In 2017, he told the Provincetown Banner about an ordinary descent near a school of striped bass that turned into a swift retreat when the shark appeared.
On a normal day, though, “we head out around 5:30 or 6 a.m., and we’re only out until 11 or noon,” said Mayo. Lobsters congregate along a steep underwater dropoff, where a shelf that’s around 30 to 50 feet below sea level plunges into deeper waters. “Mike will dive along that edge, looking for lobsters that are large enough and don’t have eggs, and basically grabbing them and stuffing them into the dive bag,” Mayo explained. Packard can bring up 100 pounds of lobster in a single dive, said Mayo, and one trip can include three to eight dives.
Because New England’s waters are so rich in plankton, visibility underwater is only about 15 feet even in good weather, Mayo said. That means neither the whale nor Packard had time to see each other when the whale charged forward.
“When a humpback moves to lunge, its mouth is open hugely, and its eyes, they bulge out a little bit, but they’re off to the sides,” said Jooke Robbins, director of the humpback whale program at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies. “It’s quite likely that it can’t see right in front of its face when it’s feeding like that.
“Based on our work with whale disentanglement, it’s quite clear that, when they’re feeding, they’re getting things in their mouth they didn’t want. Usually, it’s fishing gear,” said Robbins. This time, it was Mike.
Encounters of this kind are extremely rare, said Robbins. Even more rare is that the human wasn’t specifically looking for whales. The closest analogue Robbins could think of was an episode off the coast of South Africa in 2019, when a Bryde’s whale wound up with a man in his mouth: legs out, torso in. But the diver in that case, Rainer Schimpf, was specifically there to photograph a sardine-fueled feeding frenzy, before he briefly became a part of it.
(Schimpf came out of that encounter even less injured than Packard. After being briefly squeezed about the waist and then released from the whale’s jaws, Schimpf boarded the boat, checked his body and his camera, and got back in the water to take more pictures, according to a report in The Guardian.)
There remains one intriguing question, though: whatever happened to the whale?
Robbins was circumspect. “We don’t have an I.D. yet,” she said. “There was a young, small humpback in the area that day, and the previous day, but that whale had also been seen some other places, and I don’t think we can make the assumption that it’s the same whale.
“There was a sighting from a whale watch boat later in the day. It was seen and photographed, but it wasn’t contemporaneous,” Robbins added. “If there were any photos at the time of the actual event, that would be very helpful.”
Mayo had a theory.
“I was told a young humpback was seen leaving the area, heading north toward Gloucester in a linear track, breaching repeatedly,” said Mayo.
“They’re known to breach to clean nuisances off, or parasites,” he said, adding, “The whale could have been a little freaked out.”
THE SCUTTLEBUTT—BREAKING NEWS
PROVINCETOWN — First of all, Mike Packard was not “gulped down” by a humpback whale, as the Boston Herald reported, nor was he “swallowed” by the whale, as the Cape Cod Times reported. A whale’s gullet is approximately the size of a softball, so there is no way it could ever swallow a man.
Mike, 56, is the local fisherman who is now famous for spending about 30 seconds in a whale’s mouth on Friday morning, June 11.
He has been diving for lobsters for decades, and he does it better than most. As he does on many days, he was diving off Herring Cove. He flipped backwards into the water from his boat, the J a’n J, and proceeded to descend. The water isn’t very deep where he likes to dive, along the edge between Race Point and Wood End. It is 20 to 50 feet there. This has always been a great area for lobsters.
Mike’s mate, Josiah Mayo, watched him dive to about 30 feet when he noticed some turbulence in the water. He saw a big dark shadow and thought Mike might be in trouble with a great white shark. Then the shadow broke the surface and Josiah immediately saw it was a young humpback whale. The whale, for reasons we will never know, had taken Mike into its large mouth and up to the surface, where it spit him out. Josiah got Mike into the boat, radioed the rescue squad, and sped back to MacMillan Pier, where Mike was taken to Cape Cod Hospital.
Before we get all crazy with theories of whales gone bad, keep in mind that they eat small sand eels, herring, mackerel, and pogies. They are not looking for anything as large as a human being. In order to catch their preferred foods, whales have to lunge very fast and hard into a school of fish to get the most bang for the buck. And once a 10-to-30-ton animal decides to lunge, there is no stopping it. This whale could have been feeding when Mike accidentally got in the way.
Or, being young, this humpback could have been doing what young animals do, including some goofy, irrational behavior. We had a fin whale accidentally hit Vaughn Cabral’s boat last year and semi-swamp him.
These whales are not aggressive, no matter what you might have read in Moby-Dick. I have run well over 1,000 whale watch trips out of Provincetown and have never seen dangerously aggressive behavior from a humpback or finback whale around boats. They are here to feed and fatten up before they migrate south.
Whales have no issue with humans, but mistakes do happen, and this was clearly one of them, which luckily did not cost a good man his life. Humpback whales have no teeth, so besides not being swallowed, Mike was not chewed. He was treated at the hospital for minor injuries and released the same day. And he will be able to tell a story for the rest of his life that will never be topped.
As we begin another season on the waterfront, it would be an understatement to say its start, if it ever happens, won’t look like any other previous season’s start. Our world has fundamentally changed for all of us, including those who work on the waterfront, as we try to grapple with the first significant global pandemic since 1918.
Before the pandemic, it was looking like an early start on the water, as our relatively mild winter kept ocean and bay water temperatures a little higher than normal. Herring runs started earlier, as well as plankton blooms. The striped bass migration out of Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River kicked in sooner than normal as well, and fishermen have already begun to catch the first wave of schoolies from New Jersey all the way up to the Cape Cod Canal.
There have been some significant changes to the striped bass regulations for the upcoming season. For the recreational fisheries along the Massachusetts coast, the 28-inch minimum has been replaced with a slot limit: 28 inches minimum and under 35 inches maximum. The previous one-fish limit remains in force.
Circle hooks are allowed only when chunk-bait fishing for striped bass, and gaffs are prohibited on any fish not of slot-limit size. I understand why circle hooks are allowed only for bait fishing, as the mortality rate improves when removing a circle hook from an undersized fish as opposed to a treble hook. But, at the same time, swimming plugs with three treble hooks are still allowed, and I can assure readers that a fish with three swimming plug treble hooks in it has little chance of survival when returned to the water.
Recreational bluefish regulations have been modified as well. Effective May 1, recreational fishermen will be allowed to keep only three bluefish per day, but charter boat clients will be able to keep up to five. We previously had a bag limit of 10 fish per day. There is still no minimum size for bluefish keepers.
The commercial regulations for striped bass, as I understand it, are still in flux, but I am hearing that an 18-percent reduction in the quota is being talked about.
Some say striped bass numbers are once again perilously low, in part because of low catch reports both recreationally and commercially last season. Here’s the problem with that: government fish surveys are taken within the three-mile legal catch limit, and there was a very large body of striped bass camped for a while last year more than three miles from land, southeast of Martha’s Vineyard, and consequently these fish went uncounted. This is the unintended consequence of a process that is very much an inexact science.
Right whales are arriving as usual for their annual spring feed on the enormous amounts of plankton in our waters at this time of year. They can be seen from shore, Herring Cove to Race Point, and my buddies who do yacht deliveries tell me they are seeing many pods of humpback whales cruising from off the coast of Florida north towards Virginia, so they should be here soon as well.
With all these marine animals and mammals nicely falling into place for the start of another fishing and whale-watching season, there is an elephant in the room, which may or may not affect us in a way we have never seen before in our lifetimes. Social distancing might be a game changer for waterfront activities and is the issue I will address in depth in next week’s column.
Until then, stay home, be well, and let’s beat this monster once and for all.
WELLFLEET— A juvenile humpback whale that was stranded on Saturday, Feb. 8, inside the sandbar known as “the gut” by the Herring River was found dead on Monday afternoon.
The humpback was 25 feet long, about half the size of a full-grown animal, and a health assessment conducted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) stranding network on Saturday found it to be “severely emaciated,” said Nicole Hunter of IFAW.