Scuba diving is one of the best ways to get a closer look at wildlife. But one diver from South Africa got a little too close for comfort during a recent ocean expedition.
Rainer Schimpf, 51, was almost swallowed whole by a 55-foot Bryde’s whale while diving off the coast of Port Elizabeth.
The experienced dive operator was in the water taking photos of "bait balls," groups of hundreds of fish herded together by dolphins hunting in packs.
Shimpf told Sky News that the enormous ocean mammal "came out of nowhere" while he was focusing on nearby sharks.
"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," he said, "so we were very focused on the sharks and their behavior - then suddenly it got dark."
In his more than 15 years running diving tours, Schimpf had never encountered a situation quite like this. The whale scooped him up in its jaws, but quickly realized he was too big to swallow.
In what could be the understatement of the year, Schimpf said that was "kind of an instant relief." But he wasn’t out of danger yet.
"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 said. "Obviously he realized I was not what he wanted to eat so he spat me out again."
The whole terrifying encounter lasted less than two seconds, but the dive team who saw it happen will never forget it.
Like Jonah, or Pinocchio, Schimpf had seen the inside of a whale’s mouth and lived to tell the tale.
"Nothing can actually prepare you for the event when you end up inside the whale," Schimpf told News.com.au about the bizarre experience, "and then it’s pure instinct."
Despite the beast's impressive size, Bryde’s whales mainly feed on tiny ocean creatures like krill. Hair-like strands called baleen hanging from the whale’s jaw trap tiny animals inside their mouths.
Schimpf’s fellow divers say the whales do not get a look at their prey as they scoop it up in their mouths, and may have mistaken the unfortunate diver for a dolphin or large fish.
But whatever the explanation, having a 90,000 pound "gentle giant" mistake you for lunch is not much fun.
"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," Schimpf said.
Schimpf does not have any injuries from his close encounter with the whale, just "quite the tale to tell."