MOMENTS: When Doug Perrine Was Spat Out By A Baleen
I was photographing a bait ball of sardines off the coast of Mexico. The sardines were being rounded up and picked off by striped marlin.
Visibility was pretty good, in the 15-20m range, and the water was blue. So my brain went into a ‘does not compute’ mode when my optical neurons reported the sudden appearance of a dark area, roughly in the shape of a disc, just beyond the bait ball.
This dark disc appeared to be two-dimensional and stationary but expanding in size at an impossible rate. The illusion was shattered in a second or so when the object burst through the bait ball, and I was suddenly confronted with an entity that was not only three-dimensional but the size of a locomotive and moving towards me at very high speed with its mouth wide open.
I was about to be swallowed by a baleen whale.
The one or two fin kicks I was able to make before contact pushed me off to the side just enough to probably save my life and also cause my picture to be a little off-centre, with the whale’s upper jaw spilling out of the frame.
The whale also reacted by starting to close its mouth, or perhaps it was already doing so, as it had passed through the bait ball. In any case, instead of re-living the Jonah legend, my soft rubber fins bounced off the whale’s lower jaw, and I went tumbling down the throat pleats, which were ballooning out like an auto airbag, then had my second near heart attack as I saw the powerful tail approaching at warp speed.
I was now being spun by vortices beyond any control and unable to swim, so it was either by dumb luck or by great agility on the whale’s part that I avoided any physical contact with its flukes. The zone between a whale’s pectoral fin and its tail has been coined ‘the arc of death’ by cameraman Bob Cranston. Somehow I had transited this zone and survived!
The whale was a Bryde’s (pronounced Bree-dahs) whale, a lean and very active predator on small fish and invertebrates.
I often wonder what would have happened if I had not made those two kicks to the side. Would I have been smashed to a pulp? Would I have gone into the mouth and been spit out? Or would I have escaped with the greatest whale picture ever made, showing the entire mouth from the perspective of a sardine about to be consumed?
•Doug is one of the world’s leading underwater photographers and has been contributing to DIVE for nearly 20 years