A diver named Rainer Schimpf, 51 was taking underwater photos in South Africa when the unthinkable happened — he was scooped up by a Bryde’s whale in its mouth! It’s almost like a modern-day “Jonah and the whale” story that came to life and like the lead character, Schimpf miraculously survives to tell the tale.
Bryde’s whales are part of the baleen whale family and they are often found in warm waters including the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Ocean. This kind of whale is noted for its sleek and slender body with blue-grey coloring and a head that makes up about one-fourth of its body length with three prominent ridges near its blowhole. A full-grown female can weigh up to 40,000 kg and measure up to 16.5 m in length while a full-grown male is slightly smaller.
This species is not known to be aggressive and they usually eat plankton, krill, shrimp, crabs, and small schooling fish. With this kind of diet, how did the diver end up inside the mouth of the Bryde’s whale?
A sardine run like no other
Between April and May each year, millions of sardines deposit their eggs off the Cape of South Africa and migrate to the north. Many divers look forward to this annual sardine run and so does marine creatures such as dolphins, sharks, and whales.
Schimpf and his companions traveled about 25 nautical miles off Port Elizabeth to witness this phenomenal event. Schimpf has been documenting and filming one of the biggest marine migrations in the Southern Hemisphere for 15 years now but never in his wildest dreams did he imagine himself getting grabbed by a whale.
“Nothing can actually prepare you for the event when you end up inside the whale and it’s pure instinct,” Schimpf recalls his surreal experience.
It happened so fast; he was focusing on getting a shot of a shark going through a bait ball when it suddenly got dark and he felt a pressure around his hip. Then it instantly dawned on him that he was snapped by a whale.
Instinctively, Schimpf held his breath and he thought that the whale was going to dive down at some point and release him deep underwater. The next moment, he felt the whale turning and the pressure easing up and just like that, he was pushed out of its mouth. Miraculously, Schimpf came back up to the surface safe and sound.
Fellow diver, Heinz Toperczer, was there to witness the incredible scene and got everything on camera and was so relieved that his friend survived the scary ordeal. He said that he has been filming the sardine run for 25 years and he has never experienced anything like that. Schimpf’s wife, Silke is also tremendously grateful that her husband was not injured in any way – a massive whale can easily hurt a person by accident.
Another witness, diver Claudia Weber-Gebert, explainedthat although a whale is normally aware of other creatures around but as it comes up with its mouth open, it cannot see what is really in front of it. She adds that whales are not man-eaters and when the Bryde’s whale scooped up Schimpf by chance while feeding on sardines, the creature probably thought it was a dolphin and the gentle giant decided to let it go. The incident was not in any way the fault of the whale and was purely an accident which thankfully ended on a good note.
For Schimpf, it was an extraordinary experience which gave him a special connection with the whale. As amazing as it was, he said that it’s not something that he wants to go through again.
“I don’t think I had a whale of a time,” Schimpf said with pun intended. “I now have the knowledge of the inside of the whale, nobody else has,” he added.