Unless your name is Jonah, most people swallowed by a whale like a giant krill and then spit back out like a giant krill-gone-bad would not look upon the experience as uplifting. Upending, perhaps, or even upchucking. But not uplifting or enlightening. Yet that’s how Rainer Schimpf claims he felt after being swept into the open mouth of a Bryde’s whale, getting spit back out and living to tell the tale.
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
While there’s much more to the biblical story of Jonah, that’s the part that even atheists know, although the giant fish has mutated into a giant mammalian whale to make the unbelievable tale somewhat more believable. Rainer Schimpf’s story, while not as far-fetched, may have its own modern overtones and lessons. The 51-year-old South African marine conservationist, underwater photographer and dive tour operator was wearing all of those hats while photographing a school of sardines (he’s also a sardine expert of the non-sandwich kind) when he saw a mammoth Bryde’s whale bearing down on him at a speed too fast to escape. Before he could move, he was whale chum.
“Nothing can actually prepare you for the event when you end up inside the whale and then its pure instinct.”
Bryde’s whales are baleen whales which can be found in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide and can reach up to 55 feet in length and weigh up to 45 tons (90,000 pounds). Their jaws contain 250–370 pairs of short baleen plates with long bristles that are 40 cm (16 in) long by 20 cm (7.9 in) wide. Bryde’s whales were named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian consul who helped establish the first modern whaling station in South Africa in the early 1900s. Ironically, whaling has reduced the numbers of Bryde’s whales, according to (also ironically) Rainer Schimpf, who was in the waters near Port Elizabeth Harbor, South Africa, studying one of the favorite foods of Bryde’s whales – sardines (something he should have known since he’s one of the world’s experts in sardines).
“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. I mean, you can't fight a 15-ton animal."
In an interview with Today.com, Schimpf recounts his Jonah-lite experience inside the mouth of a small Bryde’s whale. Horrifically and historically, the scene was captured on film (see the photos here) by photographer Heinz Toperczer, who was on the dive boat with Schimpf's terrified wife, Silke. Both of them could see Schimpf’s legs sticking out of the whale’s mouth like the inedible part of a giant chicken wing. While they feared he may be gulped down, Rainer had a worse thought.
“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.”
At this point in the biblical story, both things happened and Jonah spent three days praying before the giant fish got tired of the gerd and regurgitated him out. Schimpf’s whale didn’t need that long.
"I was just holding myself and bracing myself and calming myself down not to be panicked, and it worked out. He spat me out and everybody's happy."
Well, maybe not the whale, who is probably still trying to wash the taste out of its mouth after wrapping it around a human for a few seconds. Anchovies, another favorite of Bryde’s whales, probably helped. Schimpf was able to not only swim back to the boat but also checked to make sure Heinz got the pictures and then got back on the seahorse that threw him.
“Pumped up with adrenaline and not wanting to miss the bait ball action, I went back into the sea – this time looking for sharks.”
The story of Jonah is considered to be a lesson in repentance and forgiveness. In a similar way, Schimpf’s experience gave him a moment of enlightenment.
''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.''
That’s not enough for a biblical book or even a children’s book, but it’s still a good lesson.
So is not swimming with sardines.