Nov. 7, 2020 — The legend began on Nov. 12, 1970, when an 8-ton sperm whale, 45-feet in length, washed up on shore just south of Florence. It was a curiosity for residents and beachcombers at the time, but soon became a bit of a problem as the stench of rotting whale began to overtake the dunes.
Since Oregon beaches are a public right of way (the speed limit is 25 mph, with pedestrians having the right-of-way), the Oregon State Highway Division (now the Oregon Department of Transportation) was tasked with cleaning it up.
The idea of burying the whale was floated but turned down: The ocean tides would surely uncover the beached beast. It could have been cut up to pieces, but who would want to do that? So, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, Assistant District Highway Engineer George Thornton consulted with a U.S. Navy munitions expert about the issue and decided to treat the carcass as a boulder, using half-a-ton of dynamite to blast it to smithereens.
Scavengers such as seagulls, crabs and “whatnot” would gulp up the remains.
KATU television news reporter Paul Linnman showed up to cover the event and interviewed Thornton just before the whale demolition.
“Well I’m confident that it will work,” Thornton said. “The only thing is we’re not sure just exactly how much explosives it’ll take to disintegrate this.”
“Is there any chance it might be more than a one-day job?” Linnman asked.
“If there’s any large chunks left,”
Thornton replied, “we may have to do some other clean up, possibly set another charge.”
The dynamite was placed on the leeward side of the whale, in hopes that the majority of the explosion would go out to sea. Then, when the tide washed back in, highway crews would haul away or bury what the seagulls didn’t eat.
At 3:30 p.m., police began moving the 75-odd spectators back to safety, a quarter of a mile away unless things went wrong which, of course, they did.
At 3:45 p.m., Thornton gave the signal to push the plunger, and a plume of sand and whale 100 feet high erupted into the air.
The initial explosion brought cheers from the onlookers. A moment later, one woman said, “Here comes pieces of… MY GOD!”
“The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere,” Linnman reported. “Pieces of meat passed high over our heads, while others were falling at our feet.”
Multiple cars were hit with the ensuing debris.
“My insurance company will never believe it,” spectator Walter F. Umenhofer told the Siuslaw News in 1970. His car was crushed by a three-foot-square hunk of blubber.
“The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds,” Linnman reported.
The resulting remains were too big for any seagull to handle, and it didn’t matter anyway. They were all scared off, despite the abundance of bits of whale spread along the beach.
Work began on burying the hundreds of chunks that were strewn across the area.
41 beached sperm whales
Soon after the whale first exploded, one songwriter was reported looking for a group to record his latest ballad, “Blow Whale Blow,” according to a 1970 article in the Siuslaw News. Residents visiting the South Jetty were seen carrying gas masks, and seagulls continued to avoid the area.
Dynamite has actually been used to explode whales in places other than Florence since the 1970 incident. In 2001, the carcass of a Southern Right whale floating off the coast of Southern Australia led to a school of sharks feeding on it, and curious boaters coming to see the frenzy.
Boaters began climbing onto the dead whale for laughs, including a small child.
The incident was becoming untenable, so authorities decided to use explosives to blow up the belly of the whale.
And sometimes beached whales explode without the help of TNT. Putrefaction of beached whales builds up gases such as ammonia, hydrogen, methane and sulfide, which can swell the body.
In 2004, biologists were transporting a dead sperm whale from a beach through the city of Tainan in Taiwan when the whale accidentally exploded, creating a river of blood and guts down city streets.
An unexpected explosion of a whale became an internet meme in 2013 when biologists on the Faroe Islands attempted to cut up a beached sperm whale to harvest the bones for a museum exhibit.
A video shows a biologist, dressed in an orange hazmat suit, carefully cutting into the whale when suddenly a geyser of innards exploded outward. The biologist was unharmed as they ran like crazy from the gushing gore.
The Oregon Highway Division learned its lesson from that 1970 incident.
In 1979, 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same location in Florence, and the idea of dynamiting was quickly passed over. Instead, the whales were buried in the sand.
And Florence had hoped the tale of the exploding whale would be buried in the sand as well, until 1990 — when Pulitzer Prize winning writing Dave Barry wrote in his syndicated column about the event, having just viewed the Linnman video.
“I am absolutely not making this incident up; in fact, I have it all on videotape,” Barry wrote before going into a play-by-play of the explosion.
“There was no sign of the sea gulls, who had no doubt permanently relocated in Brazil,” Barry wrote. “This is a very sobering videotape.”
In 1994, an abridged version of the article was re-posted on the internet, but without Barry’s name attached to it. Readers believed that the exploding whale incident had just occurred and were upset, flooding ODOT with outraged calls. It’s at this point Florence’s exploding whale became one of the first viral internet stories.
By the time YouTube came around and the KATU video was uploaded, the story was a worldwide sensation. As of this writing, various postings of the video have garnered over 10 million views.
In fact, Florence’s exploding whale is a worldwide phenomenon.
“I’m blinded with whale guts!”
The go-to resource for exploding whale information is the website theexplodingwhale.com, created by Steve and Jen Hackstadt.
The site began in the early 1990s on a webserver in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Oregon to help spread the KATU video. Soon, other information about the incident was added, and now the site is home to dozens of articles and videos discussing exploding whales throughout the world.
Here are just some of the pop culture gems the website lists when it comes to topic of exploding whales:
The long running animated show “The Simpsons” tackled the tale in 2010, with members of the town using dynamite to blast a massive blue whale.
“Saturday Night Live” took a deep dive into the whale guts in 2014 with a parody of the film “Beach Blanket Bingo.” The skit, called “Bikini Beach Party,” has a pair of young surfer lovers named Gadget, played by Charlize Theron, and Darren, played by cast member Taran Killam, who attempt to share their first summer kiss by a beached whale.
The term “exploding whale” has even made its way into vernacular, sometimes used as a phrase describing an idea that seemed good at the time but ended in disaster.
“One of the most common questions I get is, ‘Why do you do this?’” Steve Hackstadt wrote as to why he maintains the exploding whale website. “To put it simply, I think there is truly something special about this event. Not only is it a unique and quirky aspect of Oregon culture, it contains a more universal element.
“To me, it is less about one man’s mistake (because it could be any one of us in a similar situation) and more about how we as humans so often think we have all the answers. Yet, so often we don’t. If we acknowledged that fact more often, accepted our limitations and had a good laugh at them once in a while, I think the world would be a better place.”
Locally, the City of Florence included on its recent Nov. 2 agenda the issuance of a proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the “Exploding Whale” incident and, last June, officially designated Florence’s newest park — a small pocket park with beach access from Rhododendron Drive — as “Exploding Whale Memorial Park.”
Over the years, Florence’s relationship with the exploding whale incident has inspired philanthropic projects like BE the Whale, which was founded by Florence residents Jan and Brian Jagoe, owners of River Gallery, which is a nation-wide program offering scholarships for students in the arts and raises awareness of endangered species.
In addition, BeauxArts Fine Art Materials, along with Florence’s The Committee on Random Acts of Kindness, also created Exploding Whale promotional items — with proceeds going towards art scholarships for local youth.
In recognition of the upcoming Nov. 12 anniversary, community members are planning to pay homage to the whale and are inviting the public to help create a temporary memorial on the west side of Homegrown Public House & Brewery next Saturday, Nov. 14.
“We will have the event posted on social media by this Tuesday or Wednesday, but the tentative times are noon to 7 p.m.,” said co-organizer Terry Abeyta, who explained that The Committee on Random Acts of Kindness will be donating pertinent remnants from the memorial to the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum in a time capsule for it to keep and exhibit for future Exploding Whale anniversaries.
“We expect flowers, candles (LED), artwork, photos and prose to be added. The time frame allows community members to come on their own, safely, throughout the day to pay homage to the whale and also enjoy something artistic and whimsical,” Abeyta said.
To view the original 1970 news report, visit https://youtu.be/xBgThvB_IDQ.