In memoriam of Florence’s exploding whale
Groups commemorate 48th anniversary of Florence’s famous fail
Videos and photos below.
Nov. 14, 2018 — “Hazel, you got all the whale parts?” James Spangler asked Hazel Raia Monday as they were getting ready to reenact the famed “Exploding Whale” incident which occurred on Nov. 12, 1970, on a beach just south of Florence.
The whale parts were a mixture of kids and adults, dressed in black plastic bags and hand drawn pictures of various organs: A heart, lungs, a liver, a blowhole and a complex digestive track.
“Where’s the eye?” Raia asked.
The eye was a big white disk, an “x” representing a dead eyeball. It was held up prominently as the group huddled together on the sand just outside of Driftwood Shores Resort and Conference Center, creating the semblance of a large, beached whale. Multiple white boxes marked “TNT” were nestled alongside the makeshift marine mammal.
“Do you want to do quick practice?” Someone yelled, and a countdown started: Five, four, three, two, one. The whale parts yelled “Boom!” as they flung themselves across the beach, laughing.
“That was the best blown-up whale I’ve seen all day,” Spangler said.
It wasn’t the only blown-up whale reenactment on Monday, the 48th anniversary of Florence’s exploding whale. Just hours before, a video had been released online of the incident, with a small whale replica exploded by a single firework. Bloody whale blubber (represented by flaming Cheetos) rained down on unsuspecting Barbie dolls.
The video, made by local artist Jo Beaudreau and her fiancé Dan Okonski was produced to help sell “I Love Florence” shirts and sweaters designed by local artist Ed Gunderson as a fundraiser for local young artists.
The three of them showed up to the larger reenactment by Driftwood, however the two projects were not planned in tandem. In fact, neither group knew the other existed until they began promoting their events.
“It was such a great idea that obviously there’s a groundswell in the area,” Gunderson said about the interest in celebrating the often-derided decision to explode an 8-ton beached sperm whale with half-a-ton of dynamite. In the process, Gunderson, along with the organizers of the Monday night event, spoke about the history of the exploding whale, how it has become a national phenomenon, and the importance of celebrating (and capitalizing on) some of the quirkier aspects of the Siuslaw region that many locals tend to forget about.
“In two years, it will be the 50th anniversary, and we’re going to do it right,” Gunderson said.
“He brought up the idea at dinner one night and all of a sudden, here we are,” Raia said, explaining how the Monday night reenactment came about.
Raia, whose family is friends with Spangler, was just looking for something fun to do. The dinner conversation turned to the upcoming anniversary of the whale.
“We thought, ‘Why not just make this happen, what’s the harm in it?’” Spangler said. “It sounded fun, and the town needs silly stuff like this. With a median age here in the 60s, it can make things a little tough for those who aren’t in their 60s.”
Raia, a 15-year-old, thought it would be fun to recreate the incident through a sort of interpretive dance. She wrangled her friends and family to play the whale, and Spangler worked on getting the props. The script for the reenactment came from a now infamous news report that has become famous throughout the world.
The legend began in 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 remainders.
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.
This is the incident that played out on Monday night, sans cars being flattened and the spraying of guts. One of Raia’s friends played Linnman, who gave a word-for-word report over the loudspeaker. Spangler played Thornton and Raia and the rest of her friends played the whale.
Just after the “whale” exploded, the 1980s pop hit “Don’t you Forget About Me” played over loudspeakers as the participants laughed and hugged with the 20 or so onlookers. A small dance party ensued in what Spangler and Raia deemed a successful evening. However, the event did not come without its own controversy, as Florence’s exploding whale is something of a touchy subject for some in town.
41 beached sperm whales
“I’ve gotten some feedback from people, asking, ‘Why would you do that, it’s an embarrassment to the town?’” Spangler said. “But it happened. And it’s really funny! The original news footage is hilarious and amazing. Sure, it’s not the proudest moment of well-thought-out-ness. But it’s a common occurrence, and disposal methods vary. This was not one of the better ones.”
Raia agreed, saying, “In my opinion, it was a really stupid idea. Yeah, the whale is going to disintegrate. How would that work?”
In fact, the embarrassment of the incident occurred soon after the whale first exploded. One songwriter was reported looking for a group to record his latest ballad, “Blow Whale Blow,” according to the Siuslaw News in 1970. Residents visiting the South Jetty were seen carrying gas masks, and sea gulls continued to avoid the area.
But Gunderson, whose shirt art depicts the beached whale in mid-explosion, thought of the incident a little differently.
“We were really embarrassed for a long time, but I disagree with that,” he said. “It was a scientific experiment. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and now we know. We don’t do it anymore.”
Actually, dynamite has been used to explode whales since 1970. 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. In fact, the boaters made the habit of actually 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 guts came exploding out. The biologist was unharmed as they ran like crazy from the gushing gore.
But Gunderson is right: Most whale disposals are not done through explosives.
“And the people who blow it up usually don’t do it twice,” he said.
The Oregon Highway Division learned their lesson from 1970. 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 freaked out, 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.
“I’m originally from Texas, and I knew about this before I moved here,” Spangler said. “It is a big thing, and that’s really awesome.”
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.
“Backup everybody, but not too much, you’re definitely gonna want to see this,” Police Chief Wiggum tells a group of onlookers in the episode.
After the explosion, Wiggum says, “So clean, how part of it just disappears like that.”
Then the guts started falling. A car is taken out. An old man walking with a cane is flattened.
A clip of “The Simpsons” episode is on YouTube.
“Based on a true story, seriously,” is the first comment. Then comes the comments on Florence, and how close it is to Springfield, which has its own special meaning to the show’s fans. Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who grew up in Oregon, named the animated town after Eugene’s sister city. In fact, there’s an unofficial tour of Springfield that’s based on “The Simpsons.”
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.
Killam asked to play a song on his ukulele before they shared their kiss.
“Okay, but a short one,” Theron said. “It smells very bad here.”
As Killam began to sing, the whale exploded, bloody intestines coming from the side and above.
“Oh my God!” Theron screamed as Killam cried, “I’m blind with whale guts!”
They take cover by another beached whale, which also explodes.
There’s music on the website as well, most notably from indie-darling Sufjan Stevens, who was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his song, “Mystery of Love.” Another Stevens song, “Exploding Whale,” uses the incident as a way to describe a big mistake.
“The thing I most regret is having to repress what I’m feeling, while expressing delight as a myth,” the lyrics state. “Embrace the epic fail of my exploding whale.”
The term “exploding whale” is sometimes used as a phrase describing an idea that seemed good at the time but ends in disaster.
There’re even obituaries posted on Thornton, who passed away in 2013.
“Man Behind Oregon’s Famous Exploding Whale Dies,” reads a National Public Radio (NPR) story.
“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 this is one of the greatest things to happen in the history of humankind. Ok, that may be a slight exaggeration, but 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.”
The exploding what has certainly brought a smile to the face of many worldwide fans, but in Florence, the excitement has yet to really catch on.
“This is what the world knows Florence about, and I think the we should embrace it,” Gunderson said. He has found people getting a kick out of the shirts he’s been selling, which come in various forms. The mainstay of design is a round logo with an exploding whale, surrounded by the phrase “I Love Florence — Nov. 12, 1970.”
One sweater had the logo in color, another in black in white. One shirt has specks of red covering its entirety.
“The happiest moment of the week was when this young person looked at the shirt, and you could just see total puzzlement on his face,” Gunderson said. “And then he instantly got it, and he was so happy. Yay! It makes sense to at least one other person.”
The main reason for the shirts is to raise money to give as a prize for Florence and Mapleton high school students who participate in the annual Fresh Impressions art show. Gunderson has already sold $500 worth of shirts, and since then he has seen a groundswell in interest and support for the exploding whale.
Okonski, who had spent the weekend creating an online video commercial for the shirt, agreed.
“We were at Jerry’s Place yesterday, and we said, ‘Happy Whale-Go-Boom-Day,’” he said. “It just sparked a huge conversation with everyone in the bar. ‘It’s been 48 years already?’”
Okonski, Gunderson and Beaudreau hope to keep the exploding whale train going. In fact, Gunderson was just able to purchase a go-cart that can be dressed up as an exploding whale float.
“We’re going to build a dead whale float for the next Rhododendron Festival,” Gunderson said.
As for other plans for the 50th anniversary in 2020, “We have two years to figure that out,” he said.
Raia and Spangler were pretty happy with how their performance worked out, and don’t really see a future for it.
“I’m not going further than this,” Raia said. “If we do a crappy recurring exploding whale interpretative dance every year, it takes away the specialness of it. It’s just going to get boring. But I hope that other stuff like this happens.”
Spangler brought up other cultural phenomena in the Siuslaw region that rarely get celebrated.
While Eugene commemorates famed author Ken Kesey with Kesey Square, it’s a lesser known fact that Kesey wrote his seminal work “Sometimes a Great Notion” while living in the Siuslaw region.
“The Siuslaw is Wakonda,” Spangler said of the fictional town portrayed in the book. “That’s not embarrassing. I wish that stuff was more known.”
And then there’s the global phenomenon of Frank Herbert’s science fiction series “Dune.” In fact, the genesis of the series began when Herbert traveled to Florence to write about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s effort to stabilize sand dunes with European beach grasses. That led to the multipart “Dune” series, which has since gone on to inspire a television series, a film by David Lynch and is now being made into a series of motion pictures by the Academy Award nominated director of “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival.”
The Siuslaw Public Library holds a collection of first edition work by Herbert, donated specifically because of the area's history with the series.
“Why there isn’t a science fiction convention here every year is beyond me,” Gunderson said. “Why isn’t there a sandworm sculpture three stories high in the sand dunes area? People would freak out over stuff like that.”
Beaudreau, who besides owning BeauxArts Fine Art Materials serves on the City of Florence Public Arts Committee and the Siuslaw Vision 2025, added, “It would bring a lot of economic development.”
But to get that, there needs to be a groundswell of ideas. Shirts, parade floats and interpretive dances are only the beginning.
“People have to do something like this, it has to start somewhere,” Spangler said. “I don’t know why there aren’t more fun, crazy things here. There needs to be more going on. It doesn’t have to be so crazy, because people come here to retire. I understand that a big part of the community feels that their peacefulness has been taken from them. But there’s space for everything. We could do some really fun stuff.”
To purchase exploding whale shirts and memorabilia, visit www.etsy.com/ca/shop/whalegoboom or stop by BeauxArts, 2285 Highway 101 in Florence.
Videos and photos of the reenactment below.
Original exploding whale video
Simpsons exploding whale
Sufjan Stevens song
Faroe Islands exploding whale (explicit content)