A South African diver was given a rare tour of the inside of a whale’s mouth while snorkeling off the Port Elizabeth Harbour. Rainer Schimpf, 51, was filming a sardine run — an instance where sharks and whales gather fish into bait balls for easier consumption — when a Bryde’s whale surfaced, catching Rainer headfirst in its mouth.
Bryde’s whales are members of the baleen whale family, a group that includes blue whales and humpback whales, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Schimpf, a 15-year veteran dive operator, told Sky News:
“We were very astonished that out of nowhere this whale came up. I was busy concentrating on the sharks because you want to know if the shark is in front of you or behind you, left or right, so we were very focused on the sharks and their behavior — then suddenly it got dark.”
Two others were with him and watched the events unfold in just a few moments. They said they had been in the water for only a few minutes before the incident occurred. The group’s photographer, Heinz Toperczer, noted that he had not heard of something like this happening in his 25 years of filming such aquatic scenes. The last recorded man to come this close to the belly of a whale was the biblical Jonah.
Schimpf reportedly kept his cool throughout the brief but frightening encounter. He felt the pressure of the jaws cease when the whale realized it had an unexpected interloper in its mouth. Rainer explained:
“So my next thought was that the whale may take me down into the ocean and release me further down, so I instantly held my breath,” he told Sky News. “Obviously he realized I was not what he wanted to eat so he spat me out again.”
Unlike Jonah of the Bible, Rainer was thankfully released by the whale before ingestion, but it was possible that he could have been seriously hurt or drowned if the whale had dived before letting go. In an interview with Barcroft Animals, Claudia Weber-Gebert noted:
“Whales are no man eaters. This was no attack and it was no fault of the whale. They are really sensitive gentle giants and this was just an accident.”
Of course, the whale, whose eyes are on the sides of its head, could not see that there was an observer hanging around its meal. It is advised that if you would not like to be eaten by a giant aquatic creature, the best way to do so would be to stay away from the “bait ball” when feeding time comes around.
For his part, Schimpf seems amused by the encounter and enjoys telling the story. He will continue to dive, but he said the experience has granted him an existential understanding of the ocean:
“Once you’re grabbed by something that’s 15 tons heavy and very fast in the water, you realize you’re actually only that small in the middle of the ocean,” he told Sky News, using his hands to signal something small.