The “surfer almost swallowed by whale” video explained

Across the internet and television today, the latest viral hit has been the woman surfing off of Santa Cruz, California who has an incredible encounter with a couple of migrating humpback whales.

Before writing for Gadling I spent 5 years leading humpback whale watching tours in Hawaii and Alaska, so it’s safe to say I know a little bit about these creatures. Though the kayakers and surfer in the video are undoubtedly encroaching far too close to the animals (the Marine Mammal Protection Act stipulates that all boaters must maintain a 100 yard distance from humpback whales), the surfer was never in any REAL danger of being swallowed by the whale.

Landed on and crushed? Sure. But swallowed? Definitely not. Here’s why:

As the video explains, the migrating humpback whales are engaged in a process known as lunge feeding. During lunge feeding, humpbacks will encircle a school of small fish such as herring or anchovies and trap them within a net of bubbles in a process known as “bubble-netting”. Once the fish have clustered into a tightly packed bait ball, the whales use their peduncle muscle (the strongest in the animal kingdom) to lunge them forward and gulp the bait ball down into their expanded gullet.

Here’s the catch, however. Though humpback whales can expand their ventral pleats while feeding to take in the volume of two African elephants, their throat opening is only the size of a grapefruit, so at worst, the surfer would be engulfed in the gullet of the whale and effectively spit back out, which if you ask me, would have made for a much better video.

Some have speculated that the video is so dramatic that it’s a fake. Certainly the number one piece of evidence for this is the fact that the woman is wearing a bikini in the cold water that is characteristic of Santa Cruz in November. Allegedly the girl is allergic to neoprene, which explains her poor decision to paddle out next to 40 ton creatures in cold water with no wetsuit.

Incredible footage? Yes. Surfer almost swallowed? Not quite.