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The Tale of The Exploding Whale

Beached whales sometimes spontaneously explode due to build up of gases, mostly methane, as the carcass decomposes. Occasionally, whale carcasses are also exploded using actual explosives, after they have been towed out to the sea, to dispose them quickly. Explosives have also been used to euthanize beached whales.

The most famous case of a whale exploding happened in the city of Florence, Oregon, in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale was blown up using dynamite resulting in unintended consequences.

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A beached whale. Photo credit: Isabelle OHara/Shutterstock.com

On November 9, 1970, a forty-five-foot long, eight-ton sperm whale washed ashore near Florence on Oregon's south coast. Authorities became concerned that the whale would rot and become a massive stench problem. So the agency responsible for maintaining Oregon’s beaches, the Oregon State Highway Division, was called in to remove the whale. After consulting with U.S. Navy, Assistant District Highway Engineer George Thornton decided to use dynamite to tear the body into smaller pieces that could be easily removed. The idea was to gently break up the body, not vaporize it. Unfortunately, Thorton didn’t know how much dynamite he needed. He ended up using too much of it—half a ton to be exact.

On November 12, a crowd of spectators and local reporters gathered on the beach to watch, standing back from the carcass by what they thought was a safe distance—a quarter of a mile. At exactly 3:45 PM, a hundred-foot-high column of sand and blubber erupted on the beach. Seconds later thousands of pieces of foul-smelling rotten meat rained down on the spectators and on buildings nearby. A sedan parked near the onlookers was reportedly crushed by a large chunk of blubber.

Only a small part of the whale was pulverized. Most of it remained on the beach and had to be cleared away by workers.

The incident was much ridiculed in the media. News reporter Paul Linnman of KATU-TV gave a memorable account of the exploding whale joking that “the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds”.

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Eugene Register-Guard from Nov. 13, 1970, the day after highway crews tried to blow up a dead whale.

Thornton maintained that the operation “went just exactly right, except the blast funneled a hole in the sand under the whale.” He felt the operation had been an overall success and it was the hostile media that turned the incident into a public-relations disaster. While people laughed at the folly, it was Thornton who had the last laugh—he was promoted to the Medford office about six months after the incident.

The tale of the exploding whale became a cautionary one. In 1979, when forty-one sperm whales beached and died on a beach south of Florence, state park officials buried the carcasses instead.

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