Diver recounts panic of almost being 'swallowed' alive by massive whale

A stunning photo captured the moment wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf had his head and torso in the mouth of a 15-ton whale off the coast of South Africa.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Scott Stump

A South African photographer has a whale of a survival story — and the stunning photo to prove it.

Rainer Schimpf, 51, had his own personal Book of Jonah moment when his head and torso were gobbled up by a whale while he was shooting footage of a sardine run off the coast near Port Elizabeth Harbor in South Africa.

"I held my breath and I was prepared, and that's the only thing I could do, I mean there was no other thing I could do,'' Schimpf told TODAY's Keir Simmons. "I mean, you can't fight a 15-ton animal."

Schimpf was in the mouth of a Bryde's whale, which can grow to 55 feet and weigh up to 30 tons.

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He thankfully was only trapped for about two seconds before the whale let him free. The incredible scene that was captured by photographer Heinz Toperczer, who was in a nearby boat with Schimpf's wife, Silke.

A stunning photo shows the head and torso of wildlife photographer Rainer Schimpf in the mouth of a Bryde's Whale off the coast of South Africa. TODAY

"I was just holding myself and bracing myself and calming myself down not to be panicked, and it worked out,'' he said. "He spat me out and everybody's happy."

His biggest fear was not being completely swallowed by the whale, but being pulled down into the deep ocean.

"My second thought was that obviously it can't swallow me, because the throat of a whale is not big enough to swallow a human, and my next thought was it's most likely going to dive down with me,'' Schimpf said.

Whales were also a secondary concern, since sardine runs usually attracts a host of sharks, he said.

"It's not the whale you should be afraid of,'' he said. "It's more the situation."

A Bryde's whale off the coast of Thailand. The animals can grow up to 55 feet and weight 30 tons. Getty Images

A check of his body after the ordeal found that he didn't even have a single bruise. He was back in the water only minutes later.

Simmons joked that Schimpf might be the first person since Jonah's biblical odyssey to enter the mouth of a whale and survive.

"I showed (the photo) to my son, and he was impressed,'' Schimpf said. "And you'll never guess what his name is — Jonas."