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What Is Cetaphobia?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Simply put, cetaphobia is a fear of whales. It’s one of many conditions that psychologists commonly refer to as a “specific phobia,” which means that it’s related to a singular, often very personal, trigger. This particular fear often induces feelings of panic or anxiety at the sight, thought, or mention of whales, whether real or imagined. The phobia isn’t well documented in psychological literature and most accounts are anecdotal. Those who fear whales because of specific danger whales have put them in — traditional hunters, for instance, or zoologists who have had bad experiences — are usually thought to be suffering from more generalized trauma than specific phobia. More often, sufferers have never seen a living whale. Scholars have different opinions when it comes to what causes the fear and how many people truly could be diagnosed with any sort of condition, and the manifestations and symptoms vary from person to person in any event. When sought, treatment usually involves talk therapy and positive imaging, and in very severe cases anti-anxiety medications may also be recommended.

Understanding the Phobia Generally

Phobias are psychological conditions that cause an extreme, irrational fear of something. In nearly all cases, the danger surrounding the feared thing is all — or almost all — in the suffer’s mind. One of the most important differences between a simple fear and a true phobia is the effect it has on the sufferer’s life. In phobia situations, people often take great and even extreme lengths to avoid coming into contact with any triggers.

Some phobias can cause serious disruption in peoples’ daily lives, though cetaphobia isn’t usually one of these. Most people don’t come into contact with whales very often. Just the same, triggers can be more prolific than may be imagined. Many children’s books and films feature whales, for instance, and even if these are cartoonish and friendly, they can cause anxiety in people with real phobias. References in popular culture and advertising media can also cause trouble.

Those in Regular Contact with Whales

Collective wisdom might propose that the occurrence of cetaphobia would be limited, or at least most common, amongst Inuit tribe members or other indigenous people who hunt whales and have reason to fear for their lives. Documented or admitted instances of fear in these settings is actually quite rare, however. Even if a lot of these people did fear whales, it probably wouldn’t qualify as a phobia since one of the criteria for a true phobia is that the fear must be irrational. Someone who is terrified of whales because of an accident involving one would probably be diagnosed with a trauma rather than a psychological condition centered on something imagined.

Whales Seen or Imagined

Most of the people who self-identify with this phobia are afraid of whales that they’ve seen in museums or from a great distance at a marine show or aquarium. The whales in question either were not alive or were too far removed to actually be a threat to those in positions of fear.

Not all of the whales that are thought to trigger the phobia are real or even life-like, though. People can develop anxiety and related conditions based on small drawings or sketches, and cinematic representations are also commonly thought to be the beginning of bigger anxiety.

Treatment Options

Incidences of cetaphobia aren’t formally diagnosed in most places, so there isn’t always a standard approach to treatment or cure. Most of the people who claim to have a fear of whales have diagnosed themselves based on their own reactions and experiences. This has led to a wide spectrum of suffering, from strong dislike that probably isn’t clinical to a true anxiety-related panic attack at the mere thought of the sea creatures.

Most sufferers don’t seek formal treatment, in part perhaps because whales aren’t common enough in daily life to cause true disruptions. Those that do are often treated much as anyone with a specific phobia would be: they’re often paired with a therapist to talk through their fears, look for a source, and try to discuss their feelings with granularity. Group therapy can sometimes often help, provided of course enough people with similar conditions can be identified. In very serious cases, medical intervention may be the most helpful course.

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Discussion Comments
By anon973177 — On Oct 08, 2014

I have cetaphobia. I'm young and have had it since I was in third grade. I've never seen "Free Willy," but have seen "Finding Nemo." I will not go to the beach. I refuse.

By anon951357 — On May 15, 2014

I am 22 years old and am so terrified of whales. Pictures, videos, and especially their sounds terrify me. Weirdly, this appeared out of nowhere about five years ago. I have been whale watching with no fear, seen free willy, etc. All of a sudden, years later, I am ridiculously scared of them. So strange.

By anon304451 — On Nov 20, 2012

I am 24 years old and I have severe cetaphobia. I can be in another room and hear the sound of a whale and my body trembles. I have no idea why I have it. It probably came about nine years ago, out of the blue!

"Free Willy" was actually a favorite movie of mine as a kid growing up. What got me was in the movie aundre with the seal, where he's in the window watching the lady next door watching TV and she was watching Moby Dick. When I saw that big blue whale come through the boat, that was enough for me. Yeah, I know I'll never actually see one, but you never know.

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