Day 886: When Whales Explode

originally published June 4, 2014

Human beings – and I’d specify the male of the species here, though I’m quite certain this amply bridges the gender gap – love to watch things explode. David Letterman helped to build his reputation by throwing stuff off a building and airing the ensuing splatter. TV shows on the Discovery Channel have existed for the sole purpose of blowing things up for our amusement. And deep down, we all know that we could never possess the internal discipline to walk bad-ass-like away from an explosion without looking back and applauding like a giddy tween in the presence of some douchey boy-band star.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to learn that when a beached whale carcass appeared on an Oregon beach one afternoon in 1970, the people in charge of its disposal embraced the dramatic. It became a media event, and it’s still a memorable slice of history today because it also became an absolute debacle.

The fact is, sometimes whales explode on their own, due to a build-up of gasses bloating out its insides. But it’s usually more fun when humans intervene and attempt to assert their dominance over nature via dynamite. We are a truly wondrous species.

The sperm whale (that’s the one on the left) was a 45-foot, 8-ton beast. It drifted ashore in central Oregon, along the coast near the town of Florence. In 1970, beaches were inexplicably classified as state highways in Oregon, meaning the people in charge of the carcass’s removal were the same folks who helped to craft the Pacific Coast Highway – the Oregon Department of Transportation. The district engineer had disappeared on a hunting trip, so the responsibility for the body disposal fell upon the backup guy, George Thornton.

Thornton conferred with the US Navy, then ultimately decided to oust the whale the same way he would a boulder: with a big boom. Only thing is, George had no idea how much dynamite to use on a whale, something he confessed openly to a TV reporter. So he did what anyone would do – he guessed, and he guessed big. As it happened, a military veteran from Springfield who knew something about explosives happened to be in the area.

His name was Walter Umenhofer, and when he heard that 20 cases of dynamite were being hauled in to send this whale off to the great beyond, he made a point of telling George Thornton that he was making a huge mistake. He felt that 20 sticks should be enough to accomplish George’s goal, which was to disperse enough of the whale’s innards to allow the local scavenger birds to swoop in and devour the ensuing mess.

George ignored the advice. Maybe he wanted to give the people a show, or perhaps he simply felt that he knew better than Walter Umenhofer. The locals came in droves, and the media set up their cameras. This was certain to be a good story, and even more so if things went weirdly wrong. And they did. In a delightfully comical way.

Here’s the video of the news report. Skip to 2:45 for the real show – and what a show it is. The spectators had been ordered to scoot about a quarter-mile back from the beach, but within seconds they were running for their lives while the sky pelted them with blubber and organ matter, all of it smelling more foul than my nose’s imagination can conceive. All the birds who had been circling in anticipation of a high-protein meal scattered from the noise. There was no one left to clean up the remains but the Department of Transportation and George Thornton.

On the plus side, there was no monstrous carcass to contend with anymore, at least not in one centralized location. No one was seriously hurt in the explosion, though there was a bit of property damage, including one car that was flattened by a falling piece of whale. That car happened to belong to the one guy who tried to warn George against using a half-ton of dynamite when a tenth of that would have worked: explosives expert Walter Umenhofer.

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be right.

Another great whale-splosion of note occurred in January of 2004 in the massive metropolis of Tainan City, Taiwan. It was another sperm whale – one that was later deduced to have been thwacked by a passing shipping vessel, damaging its spine and sending it on a collision course with the beach. The whale was to be moved to the National Cheung Kung University for a necropsy. They wanted to see what made this mighty beast ooze ashore.

A crowd of more than 600 people showed up to watch as the whale was hoisted onto the back of a massive truck, using three cranes and fifty crew members over a 13-hour ordeal. Professor Wang Chien-ping was ordered (by whomever would order such a thing) not to perform the necropsy, and instead to transport the gigantic marine mammal to the Sutsao Wild Life Reservation Area. Still on the truck, the road crew left the university and started out for their new destination.

Then… boom.

A buildup of rather unpleasant-smelling gases inside a decaying animal is a natural process of tissue degradation, a result of putrefaction and fermentation. Often the gases dissipate gradually out the mouth and anus, but sometimes they get stuck, looking for an escape. In the case of the Tainan whale, no one knew it was a time-bomb. The transport truck was cruising through a crowded urban part of town when the whale blasted apart, covering people, cars and storefronts with its bloody, blubbery shrapnel.

The smell was vicious and the mess was staggering, but once again no one got seriously hurt. But seeing a whale suddenly erupt in a crimson geyser while you’re checking out some new luggage through a store window – that’s the kind of mental scar that sticks with a person.

Speaking of mental scars – and I wish I had the presence of mind to make this up – poor Walter Umenhofer, the guy whose shiny new Oldsmobile 98 Regency was pancaked by the Oregon whale, probably carried some bitterness away from that day also. It seems that he’d just purchased the vehicle from a dealership in Eugene during a promotion that was called – I swear – “Get A Whale Of A Deal.”

He certainly did.

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