The Victorian naturalist Francis Buckland described how one scientist had attempted a dissection of a beached sperm whale at Whitstable in 1829, descending into ‘the gigantic mass of anatomical horrors’, only to lose his footing and fall into the animal’s heart, trapping his feet in its aorta. In the 1920s, an Oxford professor named Ambrose John Wilson sought to prove the possibility of Jonah’s fate. He reasoned that only a sperm whale could have swallowed the prophet, baleen whales having throats that could admit nothing larger than a grapefruit. As it does not chew its food, the sperm whale uses strongly acidic stomach fluids to digest entire sharks and giant squid. ‘Of course, the gastric juice would be extremely unpleasant but not deadly,’ added the don, noting that the whale would digest only dead matter, lest it consume its own stomach.

– Philip Hoare, Leviathan, or The Whale (2008)


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