A tour guide was swimming off the coast of South Africa when a huge form came up out of the deep, catching him in its mouth in a very Biblical manner. It seems the man did not taste enough like a messenger from God because the whale immediately spat him out.
Rainer Schimpf, a 51-year-old nature documentarian and tour operator from Port Elizabeth, was filming the first migration of sardines in Algoa Bay, a popular whale watching area about 30 miles off the coast of eastern South Africa. The annual event attracts dolphins, dusky sharks, gannets, penguins, cormorants, and gulls who feed on the small fish. Schimpf has been leading tours of the marine phenomenon for more than 15 years but this season he was in for an unprecedented surprise.
Schimpf was snorkeling inside a swarming mass of sardine filming sharks feeding on the small fish when a Bryde’s Whale surfaced from underneath him, mouth agape. The upper half of Schimpf’s body became wedged inside the whale’s mouth.
“Suddenly the whole world around me got dark and I felt enormous pressure around my waist, in the area of my weight belt,” he told mype.co.za.
Heinz Toperczer, an Austrian nature photographer was on hand to capture the moment on film. The video of the dive has gone viral, garnering more than 1.5 million views on social media in a couple of days.
“I knew instantly what had happened – a Bryde’s whale had accidentally included me in its mouth with its meal of the day. Comforting to me was the knowledge that the whale would be unable to completely swallow me into its stomach.”
“My hard-won experience kicked in and I instantly held my breath, thinking that the whale would instinctively dive down again before spitting me out somewhere in the depths of the Indian Ocean,” Schimpf said.
Bryde’s whales can dive for up to 20 minutes on one breath and are capable of reaching depths of up to 1,000 feet.
“I felt the pressure increase around my waist, which is when I guess the whale realized his mistake as he turned sideways, opened his mouth slightly to release me and I was washed out, together with what felt like tons of water.”
The entire ordeal lasted a mere 18 seconds and Schimpf was uninjured. Claudia Weber-Gebert, a diver who witnessed the event, emphasized that it was surely unintentional on the part of the whale that Schimpf ended up in his mouth.
“As they come up with their mouths open, they can’t see what is in front of them, and I guess the whale thought it was a dolphin,” Schimpf said. “Whales are not man-eaters. This was no attack, it was not the fault of the whale, and they are really sensitive. They are gentle giants, and it was just an accident.”
Schimpf was spared the three-day ordeal experienced by the Prophet Jonah who was cast into the sea after trying to avoid going to Nineveh in order to prophecy to the people. The extended stay in the whale’s stomach led Jonah to repent and call out to God.
Hashem provided a huge fish to swallow Yona; and Yona remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. Jonah 2:1
The Bible refers to a large fish and a whale is technically a marine mammal. Whales are physically incapable of swallowing anything as large as a full-grown man but the Biblical story has entered in the collective unconscious in the form of a whale.
In Jewish tradition, the large fish that swallowed Jonah is an integral part of the Messianic era. In the Talmud (Tractate Baba Batra 75a), it is written that God originally produced a male and a female leviathan. The Leviathan is described as an oceangoing monster though not necessarily a whale. God became concerned that in multiplying, the species would destroy the world. God killed the female Leviathan, preserving her flesh for the special banquet that will be given to the righteous on the arrival of the Messiah. The banquet will be held inside a huge tent made from the Leviathan’s skin.
This midrash (homiletic teaching) is the source of an unusual blessing recited during the holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), in which we recite upon leaving the sukkah (tabernacle):
“May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah, so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.”
Though scientists believe it is impossible for a human to survive in a whale’s stomach for more than a few minutes the image has entered into the collective unconscious. AB Marine, an Algoa Bay whale watching site, reported on the incident, noting two post-biblical stories of men being swallowed by whales.
A story tells of James Bartley being on a whaling expedition in 1891 when his boat was attacked by one of the creatures. His comrades caught the whale and were understandably shocked to discover Bartley, 36 hours later while carving up their catch. His skin was bleached from the gastric juices and he was blind for life. Although the story has been reprinted several times and referred to in modern fiction it contains many factual inconsistencies and has never been confirmed. It is doubtful that a man could survive such an experience without suffocating.
A story was published April 2016 in the New Delhi-based publication The Indian Express about a 56-year-old Spanish fisherman named Luigi Marquez who was swallowed by a whale and spit out three days later. At the bottom of the article, the following disclaimer appears: “This story is a spoof and you are suitably warned.”