PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — At a little before 8 a.m., Friday, veteran lobster diver Michael Packard entered the water for his second dive of the day.
His vessel, “the J ‘an J,” was right off Herring Cove Beach and surrounded by a fleet of boats catching striped bass. The water temperature was a balmy 60 degrees and he estimated the visibility at 20 feet.
Lobster divers literally pluck lobsters off the sandy bottom, and as he dove down, he saw schools of sand lances and stripers swimming by. The ocean food chain was in full evidence, but about 35 feet down, 10 feet from the bottom, he entered that food chain in a startling and rare way.
Packard, 56, was swallowed by a humpback whale.
“All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard recalled Friday afternoon after his release from Cape Cod Hospital. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.”
Initially, Packard thought he was inside a great white shark, but he couldn’t feel any teeth and he hadn’t suffered any obvious wounds. It dawned on him that he’d been swallowed.
“I was completely inside (the whale); it was completely black,” Packard said. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead. All I could think of was my boys, they’re 12 and 15 years old.”
He struggled and the whale began shaking its head so that Packard could tell he didn’t like it. He estimated he was in the whale for 30 to 40 seconds before the whale finally surfaced.
“I saw light, and he started throwing his head side-to-side and the next thing I knew I was outside (in the water),” Packard said.
His mate Josiah Mayo saw the explosion of water as the whale surfaced and Packard was ejected. He plucked Packard out of the water, called to shore on the radio and headed in.
“My first thought was I can’t believe I got out of that situation. My second thought was for how injured I was,” Packard said.
Considering he was swallowed and ejected from a whale, his injuries were surprisingly few. Initially, it was thought he had a broken leg, but Packard said by phone Friday afternoon that he’d suffered a lot of soft tissue damage.
“But I’m good overall,” he said.
“Based on what was described this would have to be a mistake and an accident on the part of the humpback,” said Jooke Robbins, director of Humpback Whale Studies at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. Humpbacks are not aggressive animals, particularly toward humans.
From the whale description as being on the small side, Robbins suspects it was a juvenile feeding on the sand lance. When humpback mouths open to feed, said Robbins, they can block their forward vision which is why so many become entangled in fishing gear in their mouth and jaws.
Still, humpbacks injuring humans, especially instances of swallowing them, are so exceedingly rare, Robbins said.
“It is not something I have heard happening before,” she said. “So many things would have had to happen to end up in the path of a feeding whale.”
Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a senior scientist and whale expert at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, agreed that this is exceedingly rare.
“People direct dive on them (humpbacks) in the tropics, not here. In those places I’m not aware of a single incident of people having problems with them,” Mayo said.
Packard crewman Josiah Mayo is Stormy Mayo’s son.
" Michael (Packard) is a smart guy and an exceptional diver,” said Stormy Mayo. “For that to happen to him, you can be sure he did everything he was supposed to do.”
Commercial lobster divers are a tough breed. They brave the cold waters off Provincetown to grab migrating lobsters off a sandy shelf when they emerge from an adjacent deep channel and pause to acclimate to the somewhat warmer water.
The crewman topside follows the bubbles of the diver below as he or she drifts with the strong current. It’s a spot that is fraught with danger and commercial lobster divers have seen more than their share of close calls and tragedy.
“Thank god, it wasn’t a white shark. He sees them all the time out there,” Cynthia Packard, Michael’s sister, said. “He must have thought he was done.”
The call came in over the police/fire scanner at 8:13 a.m. that a diver had suffered serious injuries to the legs after interacting with a whale, said Provincetown Fire Chief Michael Trovato.