"There, you see," Ronas's mother said, as one whale talks to another. "A bait ball."
"So I see," said the young whale. A great shoal of sardines was clustered in a flashing ball, thousands upon thousands of tiny fish swimming in a tight, swirling formation. Other, smaller balls flashed nearby. They'd watched as the main shoal, attacked by everything from tuna to seabirds, formed into these glittering spheres.
"Each little fish cannot fight off a predator," his mother said, "But in numbers they hope to each not be the one to be eaten. Safety in numbers. But not from us," she went on. "Not from us."
She yawned to demonstrate and Ronas admired the gape, the plates of baleen used to strain the fish and krill from the seawater before swallowing. He mimicked his mother, yawning as wide as he could and feeling the swish as water flowed through his six-foot-wide maw.
He'd seen his mother feed and knew his pleated neck skin would stretch into a vast bulge as he engulfed, then strained out great volumes of water. Only then was he to swallow, taking in all the little fish. Occasionally something a little bigger went down as well. Seabirds were a common accidental victim, taken as they fed on the masses of small fry and swallowed along with the rest. Eat a whale's food and sometimes you became whale food, and are treated as unsympathetically by the great predator's stomach as the little fish.
"Now remember," his mother said, "Anything big, you spit out."
"Nothing bigger than a bird," said Ronas, remembering his lessons. "Big mouth, small throat." A great fin nudged him forward and he rose vertically through the water toward the bait ball. Smaller predators still flickered through the water near the ball but they would have to look out for themselves. Ronas was hungry and as he picked up speed his vast maw swung open. Despite his lessons he almost hoped the fat tuna feeding on the bait ball would stay where it was so he could test the supposed narrowness of his throat.
Sadly it saw him approaching and flickered away, much too fast to catch. The bait ball, trapped against the surface and his fast approaching jaws, wasn't so lucky. The collective defense the sardines used was instinctual and it simply didn't occur to them to scatter as the whale's jaws gaped wide and engulfed the entire ball of little fish, minus a few who escaped more or less by accident.
Ronas's jaws erupted from the water, enclosing a thrashing mass of little fish, and ratcheted shut to trap his meal. Squirming fish wriggled in his mouth and suddenly he felt the far larger shape amongst the sardines. An awkward, bumpy, thrashing thing was trapped in his jaws along with tons of seawater and a shoal of fish.
Ronas gagged. Whatever it was lacked the smooth streamlining most sea life had. There were sharp edges and strange curves not at all like those of a tuna or other like-sized creature. He might mistake it for a piece of driftwood if it weren't thrashing in its mouth. Maybe a sea turtle? It couldn't get out of his mouth thanks to the same baleen plates that trapped the little fish and if he gaped to let it out, the rest of his meal would escape as well.
Ronas was a young whale, barely twenty-five feet long and only half the length of his mother, but a baleen whale's jaws are very long and fully enclosed even this struggling morsel. A sharp edge jabbed his palate as the thing tried to get out and Ronas winced. The mass of sardines pressed in around the struggling thing muffled the impacts somewhat but it very much didn't want to be where it was.
Ronas didn't blame it, but he also didn't open his mouth to let it out. The other bait balls had dissipated, picked apart by smaller predators or washed away by his wake. He had a big mouthful of food and he was both hungry and stubborn. Ronas swallowed.
A baleen whale's tongue is massive, a great mass of muscle made to squeeze the water from their expandable jaws then shepherd the shoal of little fish - plus the occasional seabird or similar unintentional victim - into the whale's gullet. Ronas lurched in the water as his tongue pushed the awkward, sharp-edged thing, along with most of the sardines, into his throat.
It hurt! Ronas's narrow throat expanded unnaturally, stretching to its limits to let not just a thousand little fish but one far larger morsel slide down. Sharp edges scraped his inner skin as he just managed to clear his mouth, pushing the big thing and all the little ones into his gullet. As he swallowed his tongue squeezed the water out of his mouth and his swollen neck resumed its usual shape, save for the swelling where a six-foot-long shape bulged out of his hide.
Big mouth, small throat. Ronas squirmed unhappily in the water as the big thing stuck in his gullet like a cork in a bottle. Most of the little fish broke free from the obstruction and slid neatly into his stomach, flapping helplessly against the walls as they were consigned to the cauldron of acid that would consume them. He swallowed again, but the bulge still remained. He didn't breathe through his mouth but having something stuck in his throat was still very bad.
"What did you do?" Suddenly his mother was there, rolled on her side to eye the protruding bulge. "I told you, nothing big!"
The thick layer of fat and hide blunted the contours of the thing, telling her only that it was about the size of a sea lion or young dolphin. Whatever it was stuck fast in her son's throat and all she could think to do was bump into him, squashing her flank against the bulge to hopefully dislodge it.
Ronas gagged as the great lump shifted in his gullet. Those horrible sharp edges scraped his tender innards but he could feel the basic shape of the thing now, stripped of the padding ten thousand sardines provided. It was a rounded lump, then a wide horizontal bulge, then a gradual taper to the end. Gulping the horrible thing down would be easier than coughing it up and with a convulsive effort he swallowed.
The thing threatened to stay where it was but the great contraction of his throat muscles just barely budged it and slowly it slid downward. Another great gulp rolled over it and Ronas let out a sigh of relief as the bulky thing slid into his stomach.
His relief was only momentary. A whale's stomach consists of several chambers and there simply wasn't room in his forestomach for such a large meal. That muscular chamber was built to crush and process small prey through muscular contractions before releasing it into the first digestive chamber and this lump of food was so massive it wouldn't fit. Ronas groaned as his forestomach spasmed and expelled the lump into his main stomach. Here at least there was room for it but it was deeply uncomfortable to have his guts malfunction this way.
Gradually, though, the discomfort passed. The six-foot-long lump of prey was trapped in his main stomach, surrounded by a mass of sardines that blunted its effort to struggle. Even its sharp edges were no longer a problem, as the thousands of small fish provided useful padding.
"See, that is what happens," his mother chided. "Look at you. I can still see the bulge!"
Ronas could feel it, the great lump of squirming prey filling his belly. Thankfully the discomfort was gone and there was instead a comforting sense of fullness. Whatever it was, it filled a twenty-five-foot whale's belly very nicely.
The struggle in his middle weakened as the inward pressure of his body squeezed the fight out of it. A warm feeling developed as acid flowed into his gut to begin the digestion of his meal. It had arrived in his main stomach very awkwardly but once there his body knew what to do with it.
"That wasn't so bad," he commented, and his mother promptly whacked him with a flipper.
"It could have gotten stuck," she snapped. "You could have starved with that thing stuck in your throat!"
"But it didn't," Ronas said, and blinked as he burped up a mass of bubbles. His mother watched wide-eyed as he burped again.
You are supposed to squeeze out the air with the water before swallowing," his mother chided.
"I did," Ronas said, and belched a third time. That seemed to be the last of the air that had somehow gotten into his gut. "It's weird."
After that things settled down, and Ronas, at least briefly, forgot about the various oddnesses associated with this meal. That would not last. For half a day there was just the gurgle and churn as thousands of sardines and one much larger morsel were digested, but after that things went less smoothly.
A whale's guts are well suited to processing and passing masses of food. Vast numbers of partially digested fish scales, seabird feathers and occasional other detritus make their way through with the poop, causing little incident or discomfort.
It proved to be less pleasant to have a wetsuit, swim fins, weight belt, sharp-edged swim mask, diving rig and even a SCUBA tank make its way through the various chambers of stomach and then out through the intestines. Luckily even a small whale's guts are roomy and nothing got stuck as bit by bit a set of diver's gear reappeared after a trip through a whale's digestive tract. Of its owner there was little sign save a few of the larger, softened bones. Most of the photographer was fat and whale poop now, as he'd been treated by the whale's guts exactly as it would any other meal.
Eventually, with a sense of deep relief, Ronas passed the least pleasant thing of all. The SCUBA tank sank into the depths of the sea like most of the rest. Of all the things he'd swallowed with his meal only the diver's camera was buoyant and when it emerged from a whale rectum it promptly rose to the surface. He neither saw nor knew what the uncomfortable things were that he shat out, he was simply happy they were gone.
Weeks later the camera was caught in a fisherman's net and recovered. Waterproof and, as it happened, acid resistant, the photographs on it caused something of a sensation. Wonderful clear pictures of flashing sardines, tuna, and other sea life. They weren't the first pictures shot from inside a bait ball but what aroused curiosity was the blurry pictures showing a wall of yellowish white, then the ones taken in complete darkness. Even the camera's flash revealed little, just a mass of glittering something pressed against the lens and glimpses of pink. Something had happened, but no one knew for sure what it was.
All they knew was that a photographer disappeared, leaving only his camera. There was no evidence, no body. What had happened?
Somewhere in the sea was a young whale who could answer that question, if he'd even known what he ate. But Ronas didn't. It was as much a mystery to him as to everyone else. He had no idea that a horrified diver had gone headfirst down his throat, or of the man's slimy fate as acids ate into his SCUBA lines, releasing his breathing air, then began to consume him alive. Heat, pressure and lack of air had killed his prey rather than it lying as there still squirming as it was digested. Stretched out in a whale's stomach, helpless and trapped, death was a mercy. And no one, not even the predator who ate him, knew of his fate.
Most whales, and whale sharks, will spit out something like a human who ends up in their mouth as they feed. But not all of them will, and the result this time was a very confused young whale and a camera recovered only after its owner was digested. It turns out that swimming right into a bait ball does come with its own risks. You mix in with the whale food, sometimes you become whale food.
As for Ronas, he'd learned that his throat stretched wider than his mother thought it would. And if perchance he was swimming toward a mass of little prey and saw something bigger mixed in, he might swerve in that direction. Uncomfortable as big meals are, food is food, and one big gulp is easier than a dozen small ones.
The diver was the first underwater photographer to disappear down Ronas's throat. He wouldn't be the last.
Baleen whales and similar filter feeders who end up with something big in their mouth usually spit it out. Usually.