Whale tries to 'swallow' South African tour operator in feeding frenzy

Victoria Ward
Rainer Schimpf in the mouth of the Bryde's Whale - Heinz Toperczer / Barcroft Media

When Jonah was swallowed by a whale it was three days and three nights before he was finally spat back out, alive, on a beach.

Fortunately for Rainer Schimpf, 51, who similarly found himself trapped in the jaws of a huge whale, his ordeal was of rather less biblical proportions.

The South African dive tour operator has described the moment everything went dark as his head and torso were suddenly swallowed by a Bryde’s Whale mid feeding frenzy as it gulped down everything in its path.

“There was no time for fear or any emotion,” he told the Telegraph.

“I knew instantly what had happened. I knew that a whale had come and taken me and I I instinctively held my breath, assuming that it would dive down again and spit me out somewhere in the depths of the Indian Ocean.”

Mr Schimpf had been snorkeling with two colleagues some 25 nautical miles off the coast near Port Elizabeth Harbour.

Rainer Schimpf in the ocean with the Bryde's Whale  Credit: Heinz Toperczer / Barcroft Images

The experienced marine conservationist and photographer was attempting to film a sardine run, when gannets, penguins, seals, dolphins, whales and sharks work together to gather the fish into bait balls.

Keen to get the best shots, he had plunged into the centre of a swirling ball of fish.

When the sea suddenly churned up, the group realised that something strange was happening.

Out of the darkness loomed a Bryde’s Whale, shooting up from the depths, jaws wide open. In that split second Mr Schimpf found himself wedged, head first, inside the mammal’s mouth.

“I felt enormous pressure around my waist which is when I guess the whale realized his mistake,” he added.

“As the the whale turned sideways, he opened his mouth slightly to release me and I was washed out, together with what felt like tons of water, of his mouth, while the whale himself was swallowing all the fish in his throat.”

Watching from a nearby boat were Heinz Toperczer, a photographer and Silke Schimpf, Mr Schimpf’s wife, who were forced to watch on in horror as events unfolded.

As the ordeal lasted just 1.8 seconds, they did not register what happened until Mr Schimpf was back up and out of the water, still clutching his underwater camera.

“Silke saw there was a foreign object in the whale but it was only when I popped up by the boat she realised it was me,” Mr Schimpf added.

Rainer Schimpf, 51, has worked as a dive tour operator in South Africa for over 15 years

Incredibly, the experience barely knocked the wind out of him and after checking he had no injuries, he dived back into the water in search of the bait ball.

“On our return in the evening Heinz checked his images and it was only once I saw them that I realized just how lucky I was to be looking at them,” he added.

“Seconds decide if you become prey, seconds decide your survival and seconds are all that counts.”

Mr Schimpf said it was “definitely not an attack,” adding: “It was It was going for the fish and I happened to be in the wrong spot.

“I was collateral damage and I’m sure it was as frightening for the whale as it was for me.”

Bryde’s Whales can reach lengths of up to 55 ft and weigh up to 30 tons.

They hunt krill, shrimp, crabs, herring, mackerel, sardines and anchovies amongst other fish, lunging towards large swarms of prey and skimming the water surface for food.

They live in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and can be found traveling alone or in small groups of up to four.

Jonah and the whale is one of the most well-known biblical tales. The prophet defies God and is swallowed by a whale in a violent storm.

Whilst inside the whale, Jonah repents and is returned  to the shore.