While photographing a mass of sardines off South Africa’s coast last month, a dive tour operator ended up on the wrong side of a whale — the inside.
Rainer Schimpf, 51, was in the water with a “bait ball,” a swirling school of sardines surrounded by predators, when he suddenly felt the world go dark. He quickly realized he’d been scooped up by a whale, he told The Today Show.
“I held my breath,” he said in an interview with Today, expecting the whale to pull him down. “I mean there was no other thing I could do,” he added. “I mean, you can’t fight a 15-ton animal.”
Fortunately, the whale was likely as displeased about the situation as Schimpf and spit the swimmer out within a couple of seconds. Photographer Heinz Toperczer, who was working aboard a nearby boat, captured an amazing photo of Schimpf halfway inside the whale’s mouth above the waterline, with only the diver’s lower body dangling out. Live Science was unable to reach Schimpf for comment, but it seems that neither Schimpf nor the whale saw each other before one ended up in the other’s mouth.
The whale was a Bryde’s whale, pronounced Broo-dah’s. These animals range throughout tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, said Tom Jefferson, a biologist and member of the scientific advisory board for Save the Whales. They’re not so well-known, in part because they don’t venture into polar regions and thus were never widely hunted by whalers, Jefferson said. Around South Africa, these whales average around 43 to 45 feet (13.1 to 13.7 meters) in length.
The only whale that would likely be capable of swallowing a human would be a toothed whale, the sperm whale, which eats prey such as giant squid. A sperm whale did ram and sink the whale ship Essex in 1820, but there are no reliable reports of a sperm whale ever eating a human. The only such report found floating around early 1900s newspapers involved the unlikely story of a sailor surviving 36 hours in a sperm whale’s stomach, and that account proved, upon investigation in 1991, to be a fish tale.