On November 12, 1970, a 45 foot, 8-ton, dead sperm whale washed up on the beaches near Florence, Oregon. State beaches came under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation at that time, and officials came down, to have a look.
Administrators discussed the matter with the US Navy and someone came up with a bright idea. It wasn’t every day they had to remove 16,000 lbs of rotting whale meat, from the beach. They’d remove the carcass the same way any self-respecting DOT would deal with a large boulder. They’d blow the thing to pieces.
The gulls and crabs could take care of cleanup if the pieces were small enough. The only trick was to use enough dynamite.
No one could know it at the time, but the incident had already reached its high water mark. From here on it would only be, downhill.
By sheer coincidence, there happened to be an ex-military guy around, Walter Umenhofer, who had explosives training. Ol’ Walt tried to tell the Sages of Florence that 20 sticks of dynamite would do the trick if they were put in the right place, but no one wanted to listen.
Someone had decided to use a half-ton of the stuff, and that’s what they were going to do.
It may have been the worst idea, since Rudolph Hess flew that plane into Scotland.
The appointed day was a “blast” in more ways than one. Spectators assembled in their hundreds, TV cameras rolling. There was a sense of anticipation. No one had ever seen a whale explode.
Spectators were backed off a quarter-mile and at last, the appointed hour had arrived. The plunger was pushed, the resulting detonation tearing through the whale like the proverbial hot knife, through butter. Thousands of reeking chunks soared trough the air, raining down over a square mile of buildings, houses and streets. Spectators ran for their lives through the evil, pelting rain.
Umenhofer was among the crowd that day. A great slab of the stuff the size of a coffee table came down from the sky, and landed on his brand new Oldsmobile 88. He’d just bought the car from a dealer running a “Whale of a Sale” deal. You can’t make this stuff up.
It turns out that exploding whales aren’t even that unusual. Iceland, Australia and South African authorities routinely blow up whale carcasses to avoid hazards to navigation. They’re usually towed out to sea, first.
There are even spontaneously exploding whales, when gasses build to a point of ripeness which can no longer be contained. It happened on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, where locals reported that blubber “hung in the trees for weeks”.
A whale washed ashore in Denmark sometime in 1991, when some bright bulb decided a poke here and a prod there would release the highly pressurized gasses of decomposition. Did I mention, Highly pressurized? Few among us can ever imagine how lucky we are, we were somewhere else and not in that time and place.
In 2014, reporters for The Atlantic spoke with Canadian fisheries scientist Jack Lawson, who warned: “The worst thing would be for a person to get too close to the whale and fall inside it: “The [whale] skin is starting to lose its integrity and if someone were to walk along, say, the chin — that is full of all that gas — they could fall in the whale. The insides will be liquefied. Retrieving them would be very difficult.”” “I have fallen through the side of a whale up to my chest,” Lawson added. “It’s not very nice.”
On this day in 2004, a ripened sperm whale exploded in the streets of Tainan City, in Taiwan. That time, they’d managed to get the thing onto a flatbed and were hauling it through town when the whale, went off. A memorable day was had by all, including passing pedestrians, nearby traffic and local shop keepers.Nigh on fifty years ago, folks in the Pacific Northwest learned an important lesson on the beaches of Florence. Nine years later, 41 dead sperm whales washed ashore on the nearby coast. This time, the things were burned and buried, where they lay.