Much like the scene from Pinocchio—the ever occurring retellings of ‘Jonah and the Whale’—Michael Packard from Wellfleet, Massachusetts was actually swallowed by a whale and somehow lived to tell the tale.
On 11 June 2021, Packard was out on a diving trip in the early hours of the morning looking for lobsters. He had completed two successful dives but his third one is where things went belly up.
Talking to WCVB, Packard recounted his incredible ordeal: “I just got slammed. Just like a freight train […] and then all of a sudden it went black. And water was just rushing, rushing around me, and black, and I could feel pressure on my whole body. And I was just moving through the water like wicked fast.”
It was then that it dawned on him what had happened: “And I’m like ‘what the fuck’. And instantly I knew I was in a whale, not a shark […] and then my regulator fell out […] and I was like, ‘I better grab that fucking thing’. And I put it back in my mouth. And I’m in there, and I’m trying to get out, and [the whale’s] fucking freaking out.”
Oh dear. They say the early bird catches the worm, but in this case, it’s the whale that catches the diver.
Trapped in the mouth of one of the biggest creatures on earth, surrounded by rushing water and pitch black, Packard’s thoughts turned to that of his family and his own mortality, as he explained to Cape Cod Times: “‘This is it, Michael. This is it. This is how you die’. And I was 100 per cent sure that […] I wouldn’t get out of this situation. It was a done deal, and I thought about my kids and my wife.”
But as luck would have it, the whale, who’s consumption of Packard was purely accidental, decided it didn’t fancy a human for breakfast and proceeded to launch its accidental snack back out into the ocean.
“All of a sudden [the whale] just got to the surface and he started shaking his head and getting all erratic […] and then boom! I fucking fly out of his mouth. And I’m like, ‘Oh my god’.
If you didn’t have thalassophobia before well, you probably do now. However, believe it or not, this isn’t the scariest thing to happen to Packard.
“What haunts me more is my plane crash,” he added. Yeah, that’s right. Not only has Packard survived being eaten by a whale, he was also involved in a plane crash that left him with a “punctured lung and four broken ribs, 180 stitches in my head [and] cut Achilles,” he explained. He must have been a cat in a previous life because two of his nine lives have been used up.
If you thought that with two near-death experiences under his belt Packard would be taking it easy and indulging in some nice, safe, leisurely activities from now on, then you thought wrong, as the man with nine lives explained, “I’m still the same old guy doing my same old shit.”
One word: legend.
Do you remember your last meal? Okay, maybe you can. But what about your lunch last Wednesday? Chances are you probably can’t. That’s because our episodic memory has been shown to deteriorate over time. Surely other animals are the same, right? Well, think again—recent research from the University of Cambridge confirms that cuttlefish can. It’s about time we drop the ‘three-second memory’ stereotype.
Don’t be fooled by their cute facade, these strange-looking sea creatures give off big brain energy—literally—boasting the largest brains among the invertebrate animal kingdom. And recent research clarifies that cuttlefish are able to put these big brains to good use: allowing them to remember what, where and when specific things happened right up to their final days of life.
The cephalopods, which somewhere down the evolutionary line share the same ancestors as octopi and squid, have three hearts, eight arms, bluish-green blood and regenerating limbs. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they’ve been manifested in the imagination of a sci-fi novelist. But they’re not—they’re very much real and even have the ability to exert self-control.
And it’s for this reason that these particular animals have been the focus of scientists’ attention for some time. The University of Cambridge’s recent breakthrough has further pricked their ears. Scientists observed that as the creatures grow older, they show signs of declining muscle function and appetite but appear to remember what they ate, as well as where and when, using this knowledge to guide their future feeding decisions.
The importance of this study becomes clear when contrasting the cognitive behaviour of cuttlefish to humans. In contrast to humans, who gradually lose the ability to remember experiences that occurred at a particular place and time with age, cuttlefish are able to consistently recall such experiences. This is called episodic memory—the ability to recall and mentally re-experience specific episodes from one’s personal past. For instance, what you ate for lunch last week. Its deterioration in humans is linked to a region of the brain called the hippocampus. Cuttlefish, however, don’t possess a hippocampus in their alien-looking heads. Instead, they learn and remember experiences through a part of their brain called the ‘vertical lobe’.
In the study, Doctor Alexandra Schnell, as well as her colleagues, tested the memories of 24 cuttlefish, 12 of which were 10 to 12 months olds and 12 of which were 22 to 24 months old—in cuttlefish years, half would be teenagers and half would be pensioners. One experiment trained both groups of cuttlefish to approach a specific location in the tank they were kept in, with two different foods being provided at different times. Grass shrimps—a cuttlefish’s favourite cuisine—were provided at a different spot to the location they were originally taught to find food but only every three hours. After around four weeks, the molluscs learnt that if they waited for longer they would be rewarded with that sweet, sweet grass shrimp.
To rule out that the cuttlefish hadn’t just learned a pattern of behaviour and were actually using their episodic memory, the team of researchers picked different locations in the tank each day of the test, showing that the molluscs were able to recall the experience—not just act out of habit. The animals also recalled what they ate during the initial feed, where they ate it and how much time had passed.
Although these findings may seem somewhat trivial at face value, they have significant worth for our understanding of animal cognition and our own cognition too. Malcolm Kennedy, professor of natural history at the University of Glasgow, told The Guardian that it’s refreshing to come across another case where aspects of animal cognition can be as advanced as our own—despite huge evolutionary time separation and a different nervous system. He continued, “The pedestal upon which humans place themselves in terms of neurological abilities continues to crumble. It is just that other types of animals perform similar functions differently.” Maybe it’s time we humans start respecting other creatures that share our planet as such.