Fishing is a dangerous business, notorious for its tall tales, and few have endured the trials — and amassed the survival stories — that Michael Packard has.
As a boy, soon after getting his first fishing boat, he was swept out to sea and nearly drowned. He’s had close encounters with great white sharks while diving for lobster off Cape Cod, where he once found the body of a fellow diver. He even survived a plane crash in the jungles of Costa Rica, where he had a fishing business.
But his latest near-death experience is of biblical proportions: Last week, Packard ended up inside the mouth of a humpback whale.
If that sounds like a farfetched fish story, or a ludicrous movie script, Packard and those who know him insist it’s true.
“Of course this is an unbelievable story, but this absolutely happened,” said Josiah Mayo, Packard’s mate and driver, who along with another fisherman witnessed the hard-to-fathom drama off Herring Cove beach in Provincetown Friday morning. “We all saw the whitewater, the whale, and Michael shoot out of the water.”
He added: “Michael has a reputation that’s unimpeachable.”
Packard apparently isn’t the first person (aside from the biblical Jonah) to be consumed by a whale. In 2019, a marine conservationist claimed to be swept into a feeding Byrde’s whale while snorkeling off South Africa.
“These whales are lunge feeders,” said Iain Kerr, chief executive of Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit in Gloucester that studies whales. “They open their huge mouths and . . . engulf a dense swarm of prey. In those last few seconds, they are probably blind, literally and proverbially, to all that is going on and just focused on the food.”
Before everything went dark, before he lost his regulator and his legs were squeezed by what felt like a vise, Packard was on his third dive of the morning to bag lobster a half-mile offshore.
The 56-year-old father was in his happy place in the same cold waters where he grew up, weightless and on the hunt. One of the last remaining commercial lobster divers in New England, Packard has fished these waters for decades, even though his mother offered to pay him to stop and he often wears special electrodes to protect against the swelling ranks of great white sharks off Cape Cod.
“I love getting into a different world that nobody else experiences,” he said. “I’m not just another human being going to work, and that makes me feel good, like I’m not one of the masses.”
On that recent morning, Mayo watched Packard disappear into the dark depths in his black dry suit and tracked the bubbles from his scuba gear as Packard made his way to the bottom.
It was shaping up to be another good catch, at a time of favorable prices for lobster, when the bubbles became a kind of roiling cauldron.
“From where the bubbles were, there was a major eruption, a major slash of whitewater,” Mayo said. “There was a huge commotion just under the surface.”
Packard was in about 45 feet of water off Race Point, where as a child he was caught in a strong current and nearly drowned. When he was about 10 feet from the bottom, Packard suddenly couldn’t see, hear, or breathe, as his regulator disappeared from his mouth.
“Whatever this is, whatever just happened, I need to get my regulator in, or I’m dead — definitely dead,” he thought.
In a frantic search, he found the respirator suspended in the water, blowing bubbles just a few inches from his face, and grabbed it.
Able to breathe again, his next thought was that he had been swallowed by a shark. But when he didn’t feel any teeth chomping him, he guessed that a whale had engulfed him. Pressed between what he believed was the roof of the whale’s mouth and its tongue, he began to struggle.
“I was pushing and kicking, but nothing happened,” he said. “After 10 or 15 seconds, I said to myself, ‘Calm down. Think about what’s going on here, think about what you can do.’ I thought about it, and I realized I’m never going to bust my way out of this.”
As he was being squeezed against hard, bumpy surfaces and could feel the leviathan move, he thought about his wife and his two sons, ages 12 and 16, he said.
The next thing he knew, about 30 seconds after the ordeal had begun by his count, the creature breached the surface and ejected him into the water.
“It was thrashing its head around on the surface, and I got thrown,” Packard said. “I came out of the water, and he flipped his tail or fins, and boom, he was gone.”
Mayo was sure it was a shark attack. Then he saw the flukes of what he identified as a small humpback whale. Adults can be the size of a school bus, up to 50 feet long and weighing more 60,000 pounds.
“It was a huge relief it wasn’t a shark,” said Mayo, who spent 10 years working on whale watch boats and whose father, Stormy Mayo, is a leading authority on marine mammals.
Moments later, Mayo said, he watched Packard “come flying out of the water.”
Mayo quickly steered their boat, the J&J, named for his sons, toward Packard, and a nearby charter fishing captain sped over to help. The other fisherman, Joe Francis, helped Mayo carefully pull Packard from the water.
His drysuit full of air like a balloon, and with a stabbing pain coursing through his legs, Packard managed to utter these words to his fellow fishermen: “I was in the [expletive] mouth of a whale.”
After stabilizing him and carefully pulling off his gear, Mayo called 911 and sped to port. Then he called Packard’s wife. “I told her he had an encounter with a whale, but I didn’t get into it,” he said.
Paramedics were waiting at the docks in Provincetown Harbor and took Packard to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Though sure his legs were broken, Packard was released a few hours later, walking with a limp but without any broken bones. He was later diagnosed with torn ligaments in his left leg, but otherwise appeared to be fine.
When asked about the doubters, the legions online who have accused him of making up the story, Packard responded: “All I’d say is talk to anyone who knows me,” he said. “There’s not an inkling of doubt from anyone who knows me.”
His mother, Anne Packard, who moved from New Jersey to Provincetown when her son was a young boy, said she trusted her son was telling the truth.
“I believe anything he does,” she said. “I’m not surprised, but thank God it wasn’t a shark.”
Michael Moore, director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said he found Packard’s story “credible,” noting humpback whales have eyes on the sides of their head, so their vision may be obscured when their mouths are open wide.
Another whale scientist, Peter Corkeron, chair of the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the New England Aquarium, added that a humpback’s lower jaw is more than large enough to hold a person; indeed at 10 feet long their mouths could fit a small car.
Asked why it’s nearly unheard of for a human to be ingested by a whale, Corkeron noted that until recently whales were in low abundance due to overhunting from commercial whaling. There usually aren’t that many people in the water when whales are feeding, he added.
“Just because something is unusual doesn’t make it impossible,” he said.
Packard said he’s been overwhelmed by the interview requests from media around the world, and so far has agreed to just a few. Among them: talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, who is flying Packard and Mayo to Los Angeles this week to appear on his show. Afterward, he plans to tell his story to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who he notes is a fellow diver.
And next week, assuming he has recovered, Packard plans to resume lobster diving. He insists he has no hesitation about getting back in the water.
“This is who I am,” he said.