When in July of 1891, the ship Star of the East made it to port in Connecticut after a two-and-a-half-year journey, it brought with it a story of Biblical proportions. Among the ship’s crew was a relatively new sailor by the name of James Bartley, who had, in his short time at sea, become the center of one of the biggest fish stories ever told.
The previous February of that same year, the Star of the East, found itself whaling off the coast of South America, near the Falkland Islands. There, two longboats full of sailors tangled with a large whale. One of the two boats became upset by the harpooned creature, which was understandably also pretty upset. The crew believed two of the men, including James Bartley, lost to the deep.
That might have been the end of James Bartley’s story, but the crew managed at last to haul the great not-a-fish aboard their vessel and began the long process of dressing their catch, harvesting the valuable blubber. Before long, they noticed something strange—the dead whale’s stomach writhed as though it were about to birth an alien.
Because as anyone who has ever seen Alien can tell you, nothing good ever burst out of a creature where it didn’t belong in the first place, the sailors took their time getting the stomach opened up. When they did, out spilled James Bartley, alive, if not especially well.
Bleached by the whale’s intestinal juices, Bartley’s skin was white and shriveled and he spent the rest of his life mostly blind. As you might expect, he wasn’t in the best frame of mind either, and suffered the emotional effects of his marine mammal imprisonment for some time afterward. But apparently by July, he was ready to tell the world about his harrowing adventure and fulfill his role as the modern-day Jonah.
You might be a little skeptical of this story and you wouldn’t be alone. But the crew of the Star of the East backed up the sailor’s claims and Bible literalists jumped at the opportunity to share what they saw as scientific proof that anyone who wished to paint the Biblical Jonah story as allegorical was a dunderhead of the first rate.
Dubious details or not, the public loved the story of James Bartley and the whale. Even after the wife of Star of the East captain John Killam claimed in a letter fifteen years later that the story was entirely invented, the tale persisted, popping up every few years in small publications, Bible commentaries, and in Ripley’s Believe it or Not comic strip, complete with insistent claims that unnamed sailors and scientists say people get swallowed by whales all the time.
Because it’s the kind of miraculous story people want to believe. So, it was pretty exciting when South African wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf recently had a similar experience. While diving and photographing a sardine run near Port Elizabeth Harbor, Schimpf found himself head first inside the mouth of Bryde’s Whale.
Still, when I say it was a similar event, there were some important differences. First, there’s photographic evidence of the event. A colleague of Schimpf’s managed to snap a great shot of his flippered legs dangling from the side of the creature’s mouth. Also, this modern-day Jonah was not swallowed whole. In fact, in post-event interviews, the photographer confessed that he knew the whale could not swallow him. His only real concern was that the animal might drag him into the deep where he would surely drown.
Fortunately, the whale was clever enough to realize he didn’t care for the taste of wetsuit and was quick to spit out his accidental nibble as if it were a chicken bone, unharmed and with a great not-a-fish story to tell.
Because it is a great story. And so is the tale of James Bartley, even though it almost certainly didn’t contain even an ounce of truth. In 1991, a professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania named Edward B. Davis investigated the claim. He discovered that there really was a ship, though not a whaling vessel, called the Star of the East, and that it is plausible the ship might have been near the Falklands at the time of the alleged event. But what he also found is that among the thorough records available was not a single mention of a sailor by the name of James Bartley.
And that is where the not-a-fish story of James Bartley really does come to an end.