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When commercial lobster diver Michael Packard was able to escape the mouth of a humpback whale last Friday with only bruises and a good story to tell, the tale from Cape Cod quickly caught the attention of national news.
And of some skeptics.
“He reportedly ascended from a 45-foot depth in 20 to 40 seconds and didn’t have any evidence of barotrauma?” an unnamed Cape Cod Hospital emergency room doctor told The New York Post.
The doctor, who works at the same hospital where Packard was treated but who did not treat Packard as a patient, told the newspaper a person who experienced something like that should have suffered more serious injuries, like hearing loss, due to the change in water pressure.
“I first believed it but, thinking about it, the fact that he didn’t have very many injuries and didn’t seem traumatized enough … so I’m skeptical because of that,” Joanne Keating, of Newton, told NBC 10 Boston in Provincetown.
Meanwhile, an unidentified Massachusetts lobsterman of 44 years told the Post: “People who are in the fishing industry, and people who know whales, are finding this hard to believe. It’s a first-ever that this would happen.”
But local scuba divers say that Packard’s confrontation with the massive mammal, although rare, and his condition afterwards are definitely plausible — and they take him at his word.
Josiah Mayo, Packard’s crew mate and driver who was on the boat as Packard tussled with the whale, on Tuesday also dispelled talk that the encounter was merely a tall tale.
“Somebody has to take that position: Of all the real estate in the story, some people have to be skeptical of it,” Mayo told Boston.com. “But honestly, my comment to that, though, is that it’s kind of one of the neat things about this story: that it happened to someone like Michael, because, you know, if it happened to some yahoo, basically, all we’d be doing is arguing about whether it really happened or not. And there’s been very little of that — and for obvious reasons.”
Packard is a highliner, Mayo explained.
“Within that sort of elite group of fishermen, even until today, there’s sort of a code unspoken, where these guys just don’t embellish stuff, you know, they always underestimate their catch, you know, how rough it was out there, any of the drama that happens out there,” Mayo said.
Packard could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Packard was diving off the coast of Provincetown Friday morning when he felt a “huge shove,” he told The Cape Cod Times.
“The next thing I knew it was completely black,” he said. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.”
Packard thought he was about to die as he struggled in his scuba gear. Then, the whale started to shake its head and Packard began to see light, he said.
“He started throwing his head side to side, and the next thing I knew I was outside (in the water),” he said.
Jooke Robbins, director of Humpback Whale Studies at the Center for Coastal Studies, told the Times the incident would have had to have been a mistake by the humpback, as the whales are typically not aggressive, especially towards humans.
Robbins believes the whale was a juvenile who was feeding on sand lance when it crossed paths with Packard. She told the newspaper that when a whale opens its mouth to eat, its vision can be blocked, which often leads to humpbacks becoming entangled in fishing gear.
Still, instances like this one are very rare — nearly nonexistent, according to Robbins. She told the Times the esophagus on nontoothed whales is too small to swallow a human. But the whales could still put their mouths around one and spit it up.
“It is not something I have heard happening before,” Robbins said. “So many things would have had to happen to end up in the path of a feeding whale.”
Dr. Peter Corkeron, of the New England Aquarium, told NBC 10 Boston humpbacks can open their jaws 90 degrees as they suck in hundreds of gallons of food and water, which makes Parkard’s experience possible.
“I imagine the whale had this, like, ‘Oh my goodness’ moment and probably got rid of him as quickly as it could,” Corkeron said.
Mayo said he pulled Packard out of the water. One of the first things Packard told him was he thought he broke his leg. Others thought maybe he broke both, Mayo said.
At the hospital, medical personnel discovered Packard had a swollen hip, and Mayo said he initially thought Packard would need extensive surgery, putting their boat out for the season.
“He’s actually … recuperating daily, improving daily,” Mayo said. “And he’s looking at diving early next week, probably.”
As for Packard’s injuries, Bob Peck of Adventure Diving Services of Cape Cod in Eastham doesn’t buy the take of the unnamed Cape Cod doctor quoted in the Post.
“What’s the doctor gonna know about the ocean? Come on now,” Peck said in an interview. “I mean, you got to go to the doctor because you’re sick. But you’re not going to go to the doctor if you got to go catch lobsters and play with whales…”
“He’s probably shocked,” Peck added. “And I’m shocked, too, that he didn’t get hurt more than he did.”
Packard is an experienced diver who is very knowledgeable about the area, said Peck, who has been diving nearly 50 years and taught Packard’s sons to dive himself.
“Do I think he’s lying? I don’t think he’s lying at all,” Peck said. “I think it’s amazing what happened.”
Peck said he was most impressed by the self-control Packard exhibited in the moment. He noted Packard was able to keep his regulator in his mouth — proof that he didn’t overreact.
Whether Packard suffered any barotrauma would depend on whether he exhaled or held his breath when returning to the water’s surface, according to Peck.
“He just began the dive in the morning, so … he didn’t have a lot of nitrogen in his system,” Peck said. “So he’s not gonna get decompression sickness.”
Don Ferris, of Don Ferris Dive Training of Cape Cod in East Sandwich, concurred.
An ascension rate of 45 feet in 20 to 40 seconds “is nothing,” said Ferris, a diving instructor of almost four decades.
“That guy’s totally confused with that he’s talking about with physics,” he said, referring to the doctor.
While divers should ascend typically at one foot per second, they can go faster if needed, even as much as four times the speed in emergencies, according to Ferris, also the author of “Exploring the Waters of Cape Cod” and “The Anthology of Cape Cod Shipwrecks.”
“It’s very survivable coming to the surface that fast as long as you’re breathing out,” Ferris said.
Ferris also offered that Packard’s scuba equipment likely gave him some protection against the jaws of the whale.
And Mayo said, as far as any hearing loss, Packard already had two perforated eardrums.
“He’s a commercial diver, bro,” he said. “He’s not going to have barotrauma in his ears coming up from 40 feet. It’s just not a thing.”
Ferris said he believes the story.
“I don’t see where he gains anything attention-wise by, you know, having people thrash him for lying in a bar or something,” he said. “So yeah, I think he did have some kind of encounter … It’s a pretty, pretty dangerous job that he’s doing.”
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