Whale Tale: Man Survives Giant Animal's Smack

ByABC News
March 11, 2007, 3:20 PM

March 11, 2007 — -- It's a whale of a tale. Literally.

That's what Randy Thornton, an experienced scuba diver from Draper, Utah, exclusively told ABC News.

Two weeks ago, Thornton and more than 12 friends spent a week diving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. They were swimming with and taking pictures of North Atlantic humpback whales that mate and give birth in the waters off the Caribbean island every year at about this time.

"It was a trip we had planned for a couple of years," Thornton said. "We wanted to watch the mating and birthing habits of these magnificent creatures."

Their adventure proceeded without incident until the last hour of the last day. Then it happened.

"The current was pushing the divers into the whale," said Bridget Server, who videotaped the encounter. "They were basically right on top of the whale."

In fact, a group of three divers including Thornton had drifted directly above a 40-ton mother whale and her eight-ton baby, which was sleeping on her back.

From his hospital bed, Thornton explained what happened next.

"They both came up under us. The calf got spooked, spooked the mother," he said. "The mother flipped and threw the group every which way but loose."

The force was so intense, a videotape recording of the accident shows the actual impact and snapping of Thornton's femur, or thigh bone. You can hear a loud pop when his leg is broken.

"It was like getting hit by a train," Thornton said. "You know, it was so hard, it felt like getting hit by car."

Another diver, Janet Blackwelder, suffered broken ribs and was knocked unconscious.

Her daughter Bridget Server photographed the encounter and was devastated.

"She looked dead," Server said. "When I came up from the water, I was screaming 'Mom's dead! Mom's dead!'"

Both injured divers survived, but they then endured a painful nine-and-a-half hour journey back to shore.

"It was a pretty grueling ride," Thornton said. "You can imagine nine-and-a-half hours slamming up and down on a metal deck."