Exploding whale

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Dynamite was used to blow up a rotting beached whale, with unintended consequences.

The term exploding whale most often refers to an event at Florence, Oregon, in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale (reported to be a gray whale) was blown up by the Oregon Highway Division in an attempt to dispose of its rotting carcass. The explosion threw whale flesh over 800 feet (240 m) away. This incident became famous in the United States when American humorist Dave Barry wrote about it in his newspaper column after viewing a videotape of television footage of the explosion. The event became well-known internationally a few decades later when the same footage circulated on the Internet.

There have also been examples of spontaneously exploding whales; the most widely reported example was in Taiwan in 2004, when the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to explode in a crowded urban area, whilst being transported for a post-mortem examination.

Oregon[edit]

Event[edit]

The Oregon Highway Division failed to dispose of this whale carcass properly when they blew it up with half a ton of dynamite.

On November 12, 1970, a 45-foot (14 m) long, 8-short-ton (7,300 kg) sperm whale beached itself at Florence, Oregon, on the central Oregon Coast.[1][2] All Oregon beaches are under the jurisdiction of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department,[3] but in 1970, Oregon beaches were technically classified as state highways, so responsibility for disposing of the carcass fell upon the Oregon Highway Division (now known as the Oregon Department of Transportation, or ODOT).[4] After consulting with officials from the United States Navy, they decided that it would be best to remove the whale the same way as they would to remove a boulder. They thought burying the whale would be ineffective as it would soon be uncovered, and believed dynamite would disintegrate the whale into pieces small enough for scavengers to clear up.

Thus, half a ton of dynamite was applied to the carcass. The engineer in charge of the operation, George Thornton, stated—on camera, in an interview with Portland newsman Paul Linnman—that he wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed. (Thornton later explained that he was chosen to remove the whale because the district engineer, Dale Allen, had gone hunting).[5][6]

Coincidentally, a military veteran from Springfield with explosives training, Walter Umenhofer, was at the scene scoping a potential manufacturing site for his employer.[1] Umenhofer later told The Springfield News reporter Ben Raymond Lode that he had warned Thornton that the amount of dynamite he was using was very wrong—when he first heard that 20 cases were being used he was in disbelief. He had known that 20 cases of dynamite was far too much dynamite to be used. Instead of 20 cases they needed 20 sticks of dynamite. Umenhofer said Thornton was not interested in the advice. In an odd coincidence, Umenhofer's brand-new Oldsmobile was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber after the blast. He told Lode he had just bought the Ninety-Eight Regency at Dunham Oldsmobile in Eugene, during the "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion.[1]

The resulting explosion was caught on film by cameraman Doug Brazil for a story reported by news reporter Paul Linnman of KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon. In his voice-over, Linnman alliteratively joked that "land-lubber newsmen" became "land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds."[5] The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach, one of which caused severe damage to Umenhoefer's parked car. Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away. In his report, Linnman also noted that scavenger birds, whom it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, were all scared away by the noise.

Ending his story, Linnman noted that "It might be concluded that, should a whale ever be washed ashore in Lane County again, those in charge will not only remember what to do, they'll certainly remember what not to do." When 41 sperm whales beached nearby in 1979, state parks officials burned and buried them.[7]

Linnman's implication that the highway department had made a mistake was not subscribed to by Thornton, who later that day told Eugene Register-Guard reporter Larry Bacon that "It went just exactly right. ... Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale" (causing some of the whale chunks to be blown back toward the onlookers and their cars, he went on to say).[8]

Thornton was promoted to the Medford office several months after the incident, and served in that post until his retirement. When Linnman contacted him in the mid-1990s, the newsman said Thornton felt the operation had been an overall success and had been converted into a public-relations disaster by hostile media reports.[9]

Currently, Oregon State Parks Department policy is to bury whale carcasses where they land. If the sand is not deep enough, they are relocated to another beach.[10]

Renewed interest[edit]

For several years, the story of the exploding whale was commonly disbelieved as an urban legend. However, it was brought to widespread public attention by popular writer Dave Barry in his Miami Herald column of May 20, 1990, when he reported that he possessed footage of the event. Barry wrote, "Here at the [Exploding Animal Research] Institute we watch it often, especially at parties." Some time later, the Oregon State Highway division started to receive calls from the media after a shortened version of the article was distributed on bulletin boards under the title "The Far Side Comes to Life in Oregon". The unattributed copy of Barry's article did not explain that the event had happened approximately twenty-five years earlier. Barry later said that, on a fairly regular basis, someone would forward him the "authorless" column and suggest he write something about the described incident.[11] As a result of these omissions, an article in the ODOT's TranScript notes that,

"We started getting calls from curious reporters across the country right after the electronic bulletin board story appeared," said Ed Schoaps, public affairs coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation. "They thought the whale had washed ashore recently, and were hot on the trail of a governmental blubber flub-up. They were disappointed that the story has twenty five years of dust on it."

Schoaps has fielded calls from reporters and the just plain curious in Oregon, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal called, and Washington, D.C.-based Governing magazine covered the immortal legend of the beached whale in its June issue. And the phone keeps ringing. "I get regular calls about this story," Schoaps said. His phone has become the blubber hotline for ODOT, he added. "It amazes me that people are still calling about this story after nearly twenty five years."[6]

The footage that was referred to in the article, of the KATU news story reported by Paul Linnman, resurfaced later as a video file on several websites, becoming a well-known and popular internet meme.[12] (These websites attracted criticism from upset people who complained that they were making fun of acts of animal cruelty, even though the whale was already dead. These critical emails were subsequently published by the amused site webmasters.)[13]

A 2006 study found that the video had been viewed 350 million times across various websites.[14]

Tainan City, Taiwan[edit]

Another well-known explosion occurred on January 26, 2004, in Tainan City, Taiwan, this time from a more natural cause: the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to burst. The explosion was initially mysterious, since it unexpectedly occurred in the spine of the whale. It was later determined that the whale had most likely been struck by a large shipping vessel, damaging its spine, and leading to its death. The whale died after beaching on the southwestern coast of Taiwan, and it took three large cranes and 50 workers more than 13 hours to shift the beached sperm whale onto the back of a truck.

Taiwan News reported that, while the whale was being moved, "... a large crowd of more than 600 local Yunlin residents and curiosity seekers, along with vendors selling snack food and hot drinks, braved the cold temperature and chilly wind to watch workmen try to haul away the dead marine leviathan".[15] Professor Wang Chien-ping had ordered the whale be moved to the Sutsao Wild Life Reservation Area after he had been refused permission to perform a necropsy at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. When it exploded, the whale was on the back of a truck near the center of Tainan, en route from the university laboratory to the preserve.

The bursting whale splattered blood and whale entrails over surrounding shop fronts, bystanders, and cars; no one was hurt, though.[16] The explosion did not, however, prevent researchers from performing a necropsy on the animal.[citation needed]

Over the course of about one year, Wang completed a bone display from the remains of the whale. The assembled specimen and some preserved organs and tissues have been on display in the Taijiang Cetacean Museum since April 8, 2005.[citation needed]

Others[edit]