There have been several cases of whale carcasses bursting due to a buildup of gas in the decomposition process. Actual explosives have also been used to assist in disposing of whale carcasses – ordinarily after towing the carcass out to sea. A widely reported case of an exploding whale occurred in Florence, Oregon, in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale was blown up using dynamite by the Oregon Highway Division (now the Oregon Department of Transportation) in an attempt to dispose of its rotting carcass. The explosion threw whale flesh over 800 feet (240 m) away. American humorist Dave Barry wrote about it in his newspaper column in 1990 after viewing a videotape of television footage of the explosion, and later the same footage circulated on the Internet. It was also parodied in the 2007 movie Reno 911!: Miami and in the 2018 Australian comedy Swinging Safari.
An example of a spontaneously bursting whale carcass occurred in Taiwan in 2004, when the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to burst in a crowded urban area while it was being transported for a post-mortem examination.
On November 9, 1970, a 45-foot (14 m) long, 8-short-ton (7,300 kg) sperm whale washed ashore at Florence on the central Oregon Coast. At the time, Oregon beaches were under the jurisdiction of the state's Highway Division, which, after consulting with the United States Navy, decided to remove the whale using dynamite – assuming that the resulting pieces would be small enough for scavengers to clear up.
George Thornton, the engineer in charge of the operation, told an interviewer that he was not sure how much dynamite would be needed, saying that he had been chosen to remove the whale because his supervisor had gone hunting. A charge of one-half short ton (450 kg) of dynamite was selected. A military veteran with explosives training who happened to be in the area warned that the planned twenty cases of dynamite was far too much, and that 20 sticks (8.4 lb or 3.8 kg) would have sufficed, but his advice went unheeded.
The dynamite was detonated on November 12 at 3:45 pm. 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 joked that "land-lubber newsmen" became "land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach. 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, who it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, did not appear as they were possibly scared away by the noise. The explosives-expert veteran's brand-new automobile, purchased during a "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion in a nearby city, was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber.
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.
Later that day, Thornton told the Eugene Register-Guard, "It went just exactly right. ... Except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale" and that some of the whale chunks were subsequently blown back toward the onlookers and their cars.
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.
The story was brought to widespread public attention by 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 his own column and suggest he write something about the described incident. 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."
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 an internet meme. A 2006 study found that the video had been viewed 350 million times across various websites.
Tainan City, Taiwan
Another whale explosion occurred on January 29, 2004, in Tainan City, Taiwan. This time the explosion resulted from the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale, which caused it to burst. The cause of the phenomenon was initially unknown, since it unexpectedly occurred in the spine of the whale.[clarification needed] 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 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". 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 an autopsy at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. When it burst, the whale carcass 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 entrails over surrounding shop fronts, bystanders, and cars. The explosion did not, however, cause injuries or prevent researchers from performing an autopsy on the animal.
Over the course of about a 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.
|Dicker, Ron. "Sperm Whale Explodes In Stomach-Churning Clip From Faroe Islands". Huffington Post. November 27, 2013.|
- A stranded whale in Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, also decayed until it burst.[when?] Locals reported that its blubber "hung in the trees for weeks."
- Whale corpses are regularly disposed of using explosives; however, the whales are usually first towed out to sea. Government-sanctioned explosions have occurred in South Africa, Iceland, and Australia.
- A number of controlled explosions have been made in South Africa. Explosives were used to kill a beached humpback whale 25 miles (40 km) west of Port Elizabeth on August 6, 2001, while a southern right whale that beached near Cape Town on September 15, 2005, was killed by authorities through detonation. In the latter instance, the authorities stated that the whale could not have been saved, and that the use of explosives in such cases was recommended by the International Whaling Commission. A few weeks after the Port Elizabeth explosion, the carcass of a second humpback was dragged out to sea and explosives were used to break it into pieces so it would not pose a hazard to shipping. Yet another explosion was performed in Bonza Bay on September 20, 2004, when an adult humpback whale died after beaching itself. In order to sink the whale, authorities towed it out to sea, affixed explosives to it, and set them off from a distance.
- A whale carcass adrift in the Icelandic harbour of Hafnarfjörður was split in two by a controlled explosion on June 5, 2005. The remains were dragged out to sea; however, they soon drifted back, and eventually had to be tied down.
- On September 2, 2010, a 31.2-foot (9.5 m) humpback whale that had been stranded for two weeks near the Western Australian city of Albany was killed by the Department of Environment and Conservation using explosives. The department had planned to let the whale die of natural causes, but decided to kill the animal with explosives after it repositioned itself on a sandbar.
- A sperm whale carcass burst in Við Áir, Faroe Islands on November 26, 2013, when measures were taken to avoid a larger burst by perforating its skin. Footage of the incident was shown on Kringvarp Føroya, the national Faroese broadcaster.
- In April 2014, officials in Trout River, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, expressed concern that the carcass of a blue whale, which had washed ashore might burst, as it had expanded to twice its normal size from trapped gas.
- One of three sperm whales that died after becoming beached on the Lincolnshire coast near Skegness, United Kingdom in January 2016 burst due to a build-up of gases in the carcass, after a marine biologist cut into it while trying to perform a post-mortem. The bursting caused a "huge blast of air".
In popular culture
The unusual nature of exploding whales has made them a fertile popular culture topic.
- Australian children's book author Paul Jennings wrote a book called Uncanny!: Even More Surprising Stories that features a story about a father and son being given the task of blowing up a dead whale with gelignite.
- Patrick O'Brian's short story Two's Company, written in 1937, features a large whale that is washed up against an isolated lighthouse occupied by two lighthouse keepers, creating a "seabird and shark feeding frenzy, not to mention an atrocious stench". The men beg for some explosives from the destroyer sent to re-supply them so they can dispose of the carcass.
- In Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile series, a trickster genius character named Aiken Drum blows up a beached whale-like creature on the planet Dalriada, causing messy and disgusting results.
- In the mockumentary Reno 911!: Miami, the officers face a rotting beached whale which they promptly blow up with dynamite. Subsequently, raining whale blubber pelts the characters and they are later reprimanded after the whale parts are reported to have damaged boats in the area.
- A recording of Paul Linnman's coverage of the Oregon whale explosion was used in the song "Disconnect (No Respectable Seagull)" by Chicago band Atombombpocketknife. The song takes its title from "the seagulls, who were supposed to clean things up, were nowhere in sight, either scared away by the explosion or kept away by the smell … the remaining chunks were of such a size that no respectable seagull would attempt to tackle anyway".
- Dani Couture's poetry book, "Good Meat" (Pedlar Press, 2006) includes the poem Progress, which explores the sperm whale that exploded on the streets of Tainan City, Taiwan, in 2004.
- In Douglas Adams' radio series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a pair of nuclear missiles fired at the protagonists on approach to the planet Magrathea is turned into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale by the Infinite Improbability Drive. Since they are at an altitude of several miles above the planet's surface, the whale explodes when it hits the ground. Later, on the ground, the protagonists find a crater containing pieces of blubber.
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- "Explosive end for sick whale". ABC News. September 2, 2010. Retrieved July 17, 2013.
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- "Dead blue whale 'might explode' in Newfoundland town". BBC News. April 29, 2014. Retrieved April 29, 2014.
- "Whale 'explodes' on Skegness beach as coastguard investigate fifth sighting". The Independent. January 25, 2016. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
- Barry, Dave (1991). Dave Barry Talks Back. New York City: Three Rivers Press. pp. 21–24. ISBN 978-0-517-58868-0. OCLC 23741203.
- Jennings, Paul (1995). Uncanny!: Even More Surprising Stories. New York City: Puffin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-037576-3. OCLC 33954695.
- Linnman, Paul; Brazil, Doug (2003). The Exploding Whale: And Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News. Portland, Oregon: WestWinds Press. ISBN 978-1-55868-743-1. OCLC 52948932.
- O'Brian, Patrick (1937). Herbert, Herbert (ed.). Two's Company in The Oxford Annual for Boys. London, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 5–18.
- Reisdorf, Achim G.; Bux, Roman; Wyler, Daniel; Benecke, Mark; Klug, Christian; Maisch, Michael W.; Fornaro, Peter; Wetzel, Andreas (2012). Float, explode or sink: post-mortem fate of lung-breathing marine vertebrates. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, 92 (1). pp. 67–81. doi:10.1007/s12549-011-0067-z.
- Tour, Jim; Knodel, Mike (January 1995). Obliterating Animal Carcasses With Explosives. Missoula, Montana: United States Forest Service Technology and Development Program. OCLC 42276661.
- Exploding Whale news piece by Paul Linnman (WMV) from KATU 2
- Exploding Whale news piece by Paul Linnman (multiple versions using QuickTime) from TheExplodingWhale.com
- Taipei Times image of an exploded whale
- on YouTube
- Taiwan's exploding whale incident on National Geographic
- Offbeat Oregon History article: "The truth about the legendary exploding whale of Florence, Oregon"
- Florence Whale Explosion, The Oregon Encyclopedia
- "Rotting whale's carcase may have to be blown up". The Scotsman. March 6, 2006. Retrieved January 8, 2007.
- "SA police blow up stranded whale". Dawn: the Internet Edition. August 7, 2001. Archived from the original on March 13, 2005. Retrieved January 8, 2007.
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