Swallowed by a Whale of a Tale

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 1, 2021

Michael Packard, a former Morro Bay commercial fisherman, is all smiles in a Cape Cod hospital after surviving being inside the mouth of a humpback whale while diving for lobster off Cape Cod, Mass. Photo by Cape Cod Times

It was Andy Warhol who predicted that everyone on earth would get at least 15 minutes of fame in his or her lifetime, owing to this modern, pop culture world. That prophetic prognostication came true recently for a former Morro Bay commercial fisherman.

Michael Packard, who fished salmon from here to Alaska and commercially dove for abalone and sea urchins off the Channel Islands but was based mainly in Morro Bay in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s, made worldwide news when he was engulfed by a humpback whale while diving off Cape Cod, Mass., and lived to tell the tale.

As “Pac-Man” (as many of his old friends, this reporter included, used to call him), explained it, during an appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, he was descending in about 35-feet of water diving for lobsters, his new fishery of choice, when all of a sudden everything went black.
He told Kimmel that whatever hit him, hit him hard, “like a freight truck” and at first he thought he was in the mouth of a great white shark, which he’s encountered plenty of times diving at the Channel Islands.

But, no, it was too big to be a shark and, he said, he didn’t feel any teeth.

From left, deckhand, Josiah Mayo, and former Morro Bay commercial fisherman, Michael Packard, sitting inside a whale’s mouth, talk with TV host, Jimmy Kimmel about Packard’s adventure being swallowed by a whale off Cape Cod.

He realized he was in the mouth of a whale and thought OK, this is how it ends.
Kimmel, whose staff built a giant whale mouth and had Pac-Man sit inside it during the appearance, played coy and disbelieving, but Packard was matter-of-fact with his telling; plus he’s a commercial fisherman, and making up a story this incredible isn’t something he’s inclined to do. (Fishermen would be the first ones to call B.S. on a story like this!)

He recounted moving fast through the water in pitch darkness, kicking and punching, and when the whale broke the surface, it spit him out. Pac-Man said he was inside the whale’s mouth for 30-40 seconds.

To back up his story, his long-time deckhand and friend, Josiah Mayo, appeared with him to attest to the whale spitting his captain out when it broke the surfaced in a mass of boiling water. He pulled his captain into the boat and phoned his wife to tell her that he was OK and they were heading in and then going to the hospital. She called back to confirm the whale’s tale that she’d been told.

Now, big as a humpback whale is, though this one was believed to be a juvenile, it eats the smallest of marine creatures — namely krill, baitfish and other planktonic critters. So while its mouth is huge, its actual throat is relatively small in diameter (no doubt to prevent the accidental inhalation of a 6-foot tall man in scuba gear), and so ol’ Moby Dick lacked the ability to gulp him down.

Pac-Man had to go to the hospital for serious wounds to his legs, apparently caused when the whale tried to squeeze him through its baleen teeth comb.
Pac-Man, with a serious look on his face, told Kimmel that he just wanted to tell the whale that he was sorry for getting in its way and it will never happen again. Then, as any good fisherman would, he urged everyone to go buy his lobsters from his buyer in Cape Cod if they wanted to support him.
The Pac-Man has a history of death-defying experiences, as in 2001 a commuter plane he was flying in crashed landed killing the pilot, co-pilot and a passenger. Pac-Man was one of five people to survive the crash and they were rescued the next day.

He suffered serious injuries then as well. A documentary film was actually made about the ordeal.
Maybe Warhol wasn’t entirely right, some people get more than just 15-minutes of fame.

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