Is The Recent Story About A SCUBA Diver Being Swallowed By A Bryde’s Whale Off The Coast Of South Africa Actually True?
Because of the volume of emails we’ve received about the recent news of a diver being swallowed off the coast of South Africa by a Bryde’s Whale, we thought we would share what we know about the event. It’s really an amazing story, another whale tale of a modern-day Jonah.
As the story goes, a 51-year-old diver names Rainer Schimpf was in the water off the coast of South Africa documenting the annual sardine run. What’s attractive about the annual sardine run for researchers and photographers is it attracts all sorts of marine life because of the large biomass of sardines close to shore. You can see whales and other marine mammals, sharks, giant tuna, and just about every other opportunistic sea creature looking to cash in on this seasonal smorgasbord.
Was Ranier Schimph Really SCUBA Diving When He Was “Swallowed” By A Whale?
There are a few things about this story that are a little misleading, or at least not super clear at first glance. This story implies Rainer was SCUBA diving off the coast of South Africa at the time of being swallowed by the Bryde’s Whale, but that’s not correct.
If you look closely at the news story photos, you can see the photographer and researchers are outfitted with snorkelling equipment, not SCUBA diving gear, There are no tanks, buoyancy compensation devices (BCD’s), or anything else you would see if they were actually SCUBA diving. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense to SCUBA Dive in this kind of situation.
Most whale photography and swimming with whales happens when people are snorkelling since the bubbles from SCUBA diving tanks can scare and intimidate some animals. So it’s not accurate to say or imply that Ranier Schimph was SCUBA diving when he was swallowed by a Bryde’s Whale off the coast of South Africa. He was snorkelling, not SCUBA Diving.
The Story Claims Ranier Schimph Was Swallowed By A Bryde’s Whale Off The Coast Of South Africa But Is That A Lie?
Maybe lie is a strong word, but it’s not truthful to say a man was swallowed by a whale off the coast of South Africa.
Bryde’s Whales, like almost all other baleen whales, feed by taking in large amounts of water in their mouth and then filtering it out through their baleen. The baleen acts like a giant sieve where water can enter and exit but food stays in. You can imagine it to be like a large spaghetti strainer. What happened to Rainer Schimph is he was taken into the Bryde’s Whale’s mouth, but then spit out, not swallowed. When you carefully read the story, and especially Ranier Schimpf’s recollection of the incident, it’s clear he wasn’t swallowed, however, when you read the headlines “Diver Swallowed By Whale” it sounds like Ranier Schimph was actually swallowed by a whale, which would be a hard thing for Ranier to survive, and a feat nearly impossible for the whale to achieve.
It It Even Possible For A Whale To Swallow A Person?
On February 26, 2019, we wrote an article about Can A Whale Swallow A Person to help answer this question. You can find more details about this on our can a humpback whale swallow a person article, but the short answer is no, it’s not possible for a whale to swallow a person (unless you’re talking about Sperm Whales). Bryde’s Whales, like most baleen whales, have a big mouth but a small esophagus. A baleen whale’s esophageal opening is not large enough to accommodate a full-sized human. It’s possible to end up in a baleen whale’s mouth, almost certainly by accident when the whale is lunge feeding or using the bubble net technique to concentrate fish in one area before driving them into their mouth, but as soon as a baleen whale detects it has something large like a human in its mouth, it will spit it out, kind of like if you ended up with a ping pong ball in your mouth.
Swallowing a person in fill SCUBA diving gear is even a taller tale. Imagine swallowing all that hard metal and big scuba tanks? That is like you swallowing a ping pong ball locked inside a metal lunch box. It’s a physical impossibility. There is no documented evidence of a baleen whale ever swallowing a human, and as far as we can tell, there are no authentic SCUBA diver and baleen whale encounters where the whale has engulfed a fully tanked up SCUBA diver. When it comes to snorkelling, it’s a popular activity and one of the best ways researchers can get close to whales in the wild. While there are some outstanding youtube videos where snorkelers end up in a baleen whale’s mouth, they’re not actually being swallowed.
Is It Safe To Snorkel With Whales?
It’s tough to answer the “is it safe” question for anyone. Truth be told, there is a risk in everything and humans are notoriously bad at evaluating risk. Is snorkelling with baleen whales riskier than smoking or texting and driving? Probably not, but there are professional risk assessors and insurance folks that are better at providing hard stats. What we can say is there are very few stories about whale vs. human encounters in the wild.
Most whale attacks have actually happened when whales are in captivity, and these are usually toothed whales, not baleen whales. Deciding if you’re going to go snorkel with whales is a personal decision only you can make, but there are lots of factors to consider before making up your mind. Keeping safety and the environmental impact your activities might have in mind is always good practice. Be sure to read up on and follow the local marine mammal protection laws in your area. As with any wild animal, a face-to-face encounter is always special. Give space, and never touch or feed a wild animal, be it in the water or on land. Imagine you’re in a museum instead of an amusement park and act accordingly. When you give whales and other wildlife space and respect encounters can be beautiful, safe, and ecologically positive.
Have you ever had a close encounter with a whale in the wild? Was it a baleen whale or a toothed whale? Share your opinions and thoughts about the story of SCUBA diver Ranier Schimph being swallowed by a whale and let us know what you think.
Thanks for the terrific post