In May 2019, 51-year-old dive tour operator Rainer Schimpf was photographing a school of sardines off the coast of South Africa. Several 15-ton whales had been circling the sardine “bait ball”, a tight school of fish that have been corralled by predators, in this case whales, dolphins, and a few sharks. Suddenly, everything went dark.
“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.”
Schimpf immediately knew what had happened. He’d been swallowed by a whale.
“I held my breath. I mean there was no other thing I could do. You can’t fight a 15-ton animal.”
Photographer Heinz Toperczer was working on a nearby boat and captured the bizarre event in an amazing photo of Schimpf halfway inside the whale’s mouth. Only his lower body can be seen dangling out.
Schimpf says he felt pressure against his entire body while in the whale’s mouth but once inside, could tell that the animal’s throat was too small to swallow him whole.
The whale apparently wanted no part of the encounter either. He spit Schimpf out after only a few seconds.
“Obviously he realized I was not what he wanted to eat so he spat me out again.”
Scientists say the whale that swallowed Schimpf was a Bryde whale. They can weigh about 90,000 pounds and grow up to 55-feet in length but have narrow throats too small to swallow a human whole. A sperm whale, however, eats prey such as giant squid and can easily swallow a large man. There are no records of sperm whales swallowing a human whole, but historical records show one rammed and sank a whale ship in Essex in 1820.