By Martha Hewett @Martha_Hewett

A DRAMATIC set of pictures show a man nearly being swallowed by a Bryde’s Whale off Port Elizabeth Harbour

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Videographer / director: James Jones
Producer: Martha Hewett,   
Editor: Shiona Penrake 


Rainer Schimpf, 51, has worked as a dive tour operator in South Africa for over 15 years. But in February, he experienced something very rare – the inside of a whale’s mouth.

In perfect sea conditions, Rainer and his team set off to document a sardine run – a natural event where gannets, penguins, seals, dolphins, whales and sharks work together to gather the fish into bait balls.

Rainer and his colleagues film the expedition for educational and environmental purposes.

Split into two groups, Rainer led his team into the ocean, about 25 nautical miles from shore.

But it was when the sea suddenly churned up that the team knew something strange was happening.

Rainer told Barcroft TV: “I was trying to get a shot of a shark going through the bait ball and then the next moment it got dark and I felt some pressure when I instantly knew, a whale had grabbed me.”

He added: “I could feel the pressure on my hip, there is no time for fear in a situation like that – you have to use your instinct.”

Rainer’s colleague, photographer Heinz Toperczer, stayed on board with the other group to document the production with his camera.

“As Rainer moved towards the bait ball, suddenly the water churned widely up, and I knew for sure that something was about to happen so I held the focus of my camera on him firmly,” Heinz said.

“Suddenly, dolphins shot out of the water, a white spray came out and then a whale appeared and grabbed him!”

Fortunately, Heinz acted quick enough to capture the pivotal moment of Rainer inside the whale’s mouth on camera.

But for Rainer, he was thinking purely in terms of survival.

“Nothing can actually prepare you for the event when you end up inside the whale – it’s pure instinct.

“I held my breath because I thought he is going to dive down and release me much deeper in the ocean, it was pitch black inside,” Rainer explained.

He knew that there were two potentially fatal outcomes; he would be swallowed, or the whale would swim off with him.

However, Rainer reiterates that this was an accident on the whale’s part too.

The Bryde’s Whale, which can reach lengths of up to 55ft and weigh up to 30 tonnes, usually hunts for large swarms of potential prey, engulfing whatever is possible.

“Whales are no man-eaters – so this was really an accident, they are gentle giants.”

As Rainer hoped, the whale soon realised his mistake and pushed him out, with both escaping unharmed.

“Once I got on the boat, I looked at Heinz and asked if he got it.

“I knew this was a very special moment.”

It was incredible for Heinz too, having spent over two decades shooting at sea.

“I’ve never experienced any situation like that,” he said.

Rainer explained that despite his years of experience, it’s something he’s never heard of happening before.

“It gives me a connection to the whale which I don’t think anyone else has had.

“It happened extremely fast,” he added.

Although Rainer feels privileged to have experienced something so rare and lifechanging, it’s not something he hopes to endure again.

“I don’t think I had a ‘whale’ of a time, but I have the inside knowledge of what a whale is like.

“It was an interesting experience, but certainly nothing I want to do again.”