Up close and too personal with gigantic 40-ton feeding whale

A PORT Elizabeth diver nearly became lunch for a gigantic 40-ton whale while photographing the annual sardine run underwater near Port Elizabeth with a group of tourists and a film crew.

Instead Rainer Schimpf managed to capture a unique shot of the massive creature moments before almost being swallowed – camera in hand.

Schimpf's narrow escape made international headlines as the first human to be almost swallowed for being right above a bait ball.

Schimpf, 47, said he thought that was it for him when he saw the 15m long Bryde's whale coming at him – mouth wide open.

"But moments before the whale reached me, he changed his direction.

"Everything happened so quickly, but I managed to get a rather unique shot as he was coming at me.

"My wife, who was on the boat, took a picture showing how it breached just yards away.

"The diameter of his mouth was big enough to swallow a car – he would have barely felt me going in." Schimpf said he kept his distance from the giant mammal but was left helpless when it emerged from the depths to swallow a mass of sardines known as a bait ball.

Billions of the tiny fish migrate up the east coast of Africa during the sardine run, attracting sharks, dolphins, diving birds and whales – including the massive Bryde's whales.

Sardines normally arrive in Port Elizabeth from February and continue their journey from May, heading eastward.

Schimpf said this season was a tad different.

"There are no sardines in Algoa Bay right now. They moved west again towards Mossel Bay. As a matter of fact right now all the licensed fishing vessels operating between Cape St Francis and Mossel Bay are catching 200 tons of sardines daily. - Alvené du Plessis