Costanza and the Whale: Could You Make a Blowhole in One?

By Kyle Hill | June 19, 2013 10:22 am

In between moonlighting as a fake architect and latex salesman, George Costanza was once a fake marine biologist. His story defines sitcom lore.

Caught in another lie while walking the beach with a potential girlfriend, Costanza’s supposed expertise was tested by a crowd gathered around a beached whale. He reluctantly waded out to assist. Fifty feet out from shore, an enormous tidal wave threw him on top of the great beast. Face-to-face with the whale’s blowhole, he could tell that something was blocking its breathing. George reached in, felt around, and pulled out the obstruction.

Blocking the whale’s blowhole was Kramer’s infamous golf ball—a Titleist. Cosmo had been driving balls out into the ocean, and one lucky shot had found presumably the only cup in the sea. But we can act like marine biologists too. Could you really score a blowhole in one?

The Sea Was Angry That Day My Friends…

There a few things that we fake biologists have to go on. First, because Kramer was hitting balls off the coast of New York, we know that we are dealing only with whales common to that area. Also, as George described it, we know it was a very large animal. By those criteria, it could have been a blue, humpback, or fin whale

We also know a few things about the dimensions. A Titleist golf ball is about 1.5 inches in diameter, whereas a large whale like a humpback can have a blowhole length from a few inches to nearly a foot (their blowhole are more like ellipses, so the blowhole length, instead of its diameter, is usually measured).

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we know about large whale anatomy. Baleen whales—the group that includes blue, fin, and humpback whales—have two blowholes, like you have nostrils. But unlike you, these whales can’t breathe through their mouth, so a blocked nasal passage can be a real danger.

So, could a golf ball bring down a giant?

Is Anyone Here a Marine Biologist!?

While we could answer the question the way Costanza would—lying—we could also just ask a real marine biologist. Joy S. Reidenberg, professor in the Center for Anatomy and Functional Morphology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (and famous for her work on the awesome anatomy show Inside Nature’s Giants) is a much better Costanza to ask for help.

According to an email exchange I had with Dr. Reidenberg, it’s doubtful that George could ever realize his fake profession. “A golf ball could fit into one of the nostrils of a large whale, such as a humpback. Whether it would cause an obstruction is doubtful. It’s more likely to get swallowed, but even then would not likely cause stranding or death,” wrote Dr. Reidenberg.

The implausibility of the scene stems from whale anatomy. First, baleen whales have two blowholes, meaning that even if one got completely blocked, the whale could still breathe. Second, if a golf ball did make it into a nostril, it wouldn’t stay there very long. In a best-case scenario for the scene, if the whale inhaled at the exact same time that the ball entered its nostril, the whale “could bring [the golf ball] inside the nostril, but it is unlikely to stay there since all the whale has to do is exhale to dislodge it,” Reidenberg told me. And what an exhalation that would be. Dr. Kristi West, associate professor of biology at Hawaii Pacific University told me in an email that humpback whale sneezes have been clocked at 300 miles per hour. If that blast brought the golf ball with it, it would break the record for the fastest drive by nearly 100 miles per hour.

But like us, if an object made it far enough into the nasal passage to prevent sneezing it out, a whale could be in real trouble. If a large whale inhaled a golf ball into its larynx–with only one path for air, not two like the nostrils–professor Reidenberg noted that the Titleist could act as a ball valve preventing the passage of air from the blowhole to the lungs and suffocate the whale. However, even in this case, the larynx of a large baleen whale is pretty wide. A golf ball doesn’t have the diameter to do serious damage (maybe a softball, Dr. Reidenberg told me) and the whale could probably use its gag reflex to clear it.

A blowhole in one could prevent a proper seal when the whale dives, increasing the risk of drowning. A ball might even be inhaled into the lungs or get close enough to the mouth to be swallowed, and this could dangerously obstruct the intestinal tract. However, in none of these cases could Costanza come to the whale’s aid.

Both toothed and baleen whales have a tongue-like muscle that closes the nasal passageway (called the nasal plug)—preventing seawater from entering the lungs during dives. If the ball stayed above this plug—near the entrance of the blowhole—the whale could simply clear the obstruction with a mighty blast, no fake biologist needed. If the ball got sucked past the plug—“highly unlikely,” says Reidenberg—it would be a problem that Costanza couldn’t fix. In the episode, George claims that he plunged his arm into the whale’s blowhole to remove the obstruction, but this seems impossible. “[His arm] could fit into a baleen whale’s blowhole, but not beyond the nasal cavity and into the larynx. However, I doubt a wild whale would voluntarily let someone do that.” A trained animal may let you work on it, but a wild whale is another story.

“Would you let a stranger poke something down your nose?”

The story of Costanza and the whale remains classic sitcom fiction. In the only situation where George might be able to help, the whale could help itself with the “chuffing”—routinely clearing the blowhole—they do before each dive. Kramer might have been able to sink a blowhole in one, but the luck ends there. Such a small object is unlikely to disable such a great fish. Mammal. Whatever.

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But Not Simpler

It has been said that you should try to make a problem as simple as possible, but not simpler. Here, that problem is finding the real science behind pop culture. But Not Simpler is a place where you can ask the questions you thought were too nerdy for real answers. The physics of video games? Sure! The chemistry of dragon breath? Why not? When you can find the realities behind your favorite fiction, and seriously nerd-out in the process, everyone wins. Simple.

About Kyle Hill

Kyle Hill is a science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. His work has appeared in Wired, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, Popular Science, Slate, and more. He is a TV correspondent for Al Jazeera America's science and technology show TechKnow and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Find his stream of nerdery on Twitter: @Sci_Phile Email him at sciencebasedlife [at] gmail [dot] com.

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