An Arm and a Fin




At 8’3″ (2.51 m), Sultan Kosen of Turkey is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest man alive. He took the title on September 17, 2009, from a Mongolian man named Bao Xishun, who towered over everyone else on Earth at 7’9″ (2.36 m). For both, being extremely tall is arguably more of a curse than a blessing (and even the world record isn’t a big deal — they give those out for just about anything). You have to duck going through doorways, nothing fits right, and forget driving an affordable car. And of course, there are the health problems. The tallest known man in history, Robert Wadlow, required leg braces to walk as he had no feeling in his legs or feet, and died at age 22 when one of the braces caused a blister and later, an infection. Kosen, pictured here, requires a crutch or a cane to walk. Xishun (pictured here next to the world’s shortest man — really), now in his sixties, is relatively lucky — he suffers from rheumatism, but it appears unrelated to his incredible height.

For all the downsides, extraordinary height comes with a limited upside — it is not like Kosen or Xishun are superheroes or anything. Well, not among humans, at least. But when it comes to dolphins? We can’t say much about Kosen there, but Xishun may be more super than Aquaman. Why? Because being very tall comes with having really long arms.

In general, humans are proportional in a number of ways. Around 1490, Leonardo Da Vinci famously published Vitruvian Man, seen above, demonstrating that a typical person’s height was roughly the same as his wingspan. There are significant exceptions to this, of course — former heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis is 77″ (1.96 m) tall with an 84″ (2.13 m) reach — but suffice it to say that if you are looking for someone with really long arms, simply look up for the person who also happens to be two feet taller (or more!) than a typical human. In this case, we’re talking about Bao Xishun, whose 41″ (1.06 m) long arms are as long as many kindergarteners are tall.

In late 2006, a pair of dolphins at an aquarium in China ended up swallowing some plastic shards which, in turn, became lodged somewhere within them. Veterinarians tried the standard procedures to remove the shards, but to no avail. Surgery wasn’t an option, either. The dolphins’ appetites plummeted and those caring for them said they were becoming depressed, with no obvious solution for removing the plastic. So the dolphin experts turned to Xishun. As the BBC reported, the dolphin attendants wrapped the animals’ teeth with towels and Xishun reached down their throats with his super-long arms, grabbing the plastic and extracting it himself.

The dolphins survived — and they joined another dolphin in the annals of history. As it turns out, Xishun isn’t the first extra-tall person to reach into a dolphin’s body, saving its life. That honor goes to former basketball player named Clifford Ray, who rescued a dolphin (named Mr. Spock) from a similar fate in 1978.

Bonus fact: The suggestion above that the Xishun-saved dolphins could have undergone a surgical procedure isn’t that far afield. Veterinarians have actually performed surgery on dolphins before. In the spring of 2013, Miami-area surgeons saved the life of a 29 year-old bottlenosed dolphin named Sarah. As CBS reported, her airways were 80% closed, and using a procedure “similar to an angioplasty,” doctors were able to reopen it.

From the ArchivesTall and Unseen: The bonus fact is about Sultan Kosen, and the main story is about tall things.

Related: “Robert Wadlow: The Unique Life of the Boy Who Became the World’s Tallest Man” by Jennifer Phillips. Four stars on two reviews.