A New Zealand surfer remembers seeing the eye and skin barnacles of a huge whale before it flung him 3m into the air and knocked him unconscious in a near-drowning in Sydney yesterday.
Bishan Rajapakse was out cold for about 15 seconds and sinking when other surfers at Bondi saved him.
Last night, the 38-year-old doctor educated in Wellington and Dunedin told the Herald he had been "mesmerised" by the 15m whale - said to be a Southern Right - when it approached a group of 14 surfers and swimmers 200m offshore yesterday morning.
"I saw a huge black shadow underneath the water ... and at that moment the whale breached and it was an amazing, amazing sight. This whale was magnificent; it was so curious and inquisitive.
"She came back and was coming directly towards me, but quite elegantly and gracefully, and I was just mesmerised by this whale and talking to it like you'd talk to a nice dog or something. I said, 'Oh hello, how's it going?' At that point I thought, 'Let's just take a chance and see how it goes.' I was like a stunned mullet.
"I just remember thinking, 'This whale is so magnificent,' and next thing I know I am on my back face-up and there are all these faces around me."
Witnesses later told Dr Rajapakse, an emergency department physician, that he had been hit by the whale's tail, the impact so intense it hurled him 3m sideways through the air. It also left a big dent in his board.
Chris Collacott told the Herald he was behind Dr Rajapakse and saw the tail knock his friend sideways.
"There was a big splash ... When I looked back, Bish was in the water lying face down, and that was a pretty horrible moment."
Jeremy Piggin said Dr Rajapakse was sinking. "The girls were screaming and some of the other guys dove down and got him. His eyes were all rolled back and his arms were limp. It was obvious he was unconscious."
Mr Collacott pulled his friend backwards so he was upright in the water.
"He was out, just completely gone. He started to take air in, it was like he got winded really, really, hard - like if Mike Tyson punched a regular guy in the ribs."
Dr Rajapakse was put in a neck brace and taken to St Vincent's Hospital, from where he was discharged at 6 last night (NZ time).
"It was a near-drowning," said the director of the hospital's emergency department, Gordian Fulde.
Dr Rajapakse, who learned to surf at Raglan 10 years ago, said he surfed the same spot at Bondi about three times a week.
He was born in Sri Lanka and moved to NZ as a teen. He attended Scott's College and the University of Otago, and worked in the emergency departments of North Shore, Wellington and Waikato hospitals before doing a four-year stint in Sri Lanka.
He moved to Sydney in 2010 and now lectures at the University of Wollongong while completing a PhD and working as an emergency medicine locum.
His father and a brother are doctors in Wellington.