That Time Oregon Blew Up a Whale

That’s a whale…exploding.

Many of us have heard of the phrase, “there are very few problems that can’t be solved with the proper application of high explosives.” Well, on Thursday, November 12, 1970, the State of Oregon decided to apply the full force of that catechism to the unlucky recipient of it, which happened to be a dead whale. In fact, Larry Bacon (1970) of the Eugene Register-Guard wrote that “It was a beautiful day to blow up a whale” (para. 1). This story has gone down, perhaps infamously, in the history of Oregon as something of a peculiarity.

I’ve heard of this story before, but contrary to some secondhand, and erroneous, reports that the whale exploded naturally, this explosion was entirely man-made. I suspect the whole “exploding whale” headline comes from the fact that there have been other cases of decomposing whale corpses becoming bloated with gas and eventually rupturing. Such was not the case with the whale in Florence, Oregon.

The lead-up to this spectacular event began on Monday, November 9, when the corpse of a 45-foot, eight-ton sperm whale washed up on the beach of Florence, Oregon. It had created a bit of a malodorous problem for the locals, and authorities were also concerned that curious beach walkers would climb up onto the carcass and fall in (Carlson, 2018, para. 1). Though why anyone would really want to climb up onto the rotting, stinking corpse of a whale is beyond me. But hey, some people are into that kind of thing. 🤢

In any case, the Oregon State Highway Division (now the Oregon Department of Transportation AKA ODOT) was responsible for the beaches and opted for the removal of the leviathan. The only question was how to get rid of it.

An initial idea was to simply bury the whale, but winter storms often eroded the sand and could re-expose the even more putrid carcass. Alternatively, the whale could be dragged further onshore and buried in deeper sand, but since it had been exposed to the sun for several days, any attempt to drag it would likely pull it apart and create a bigger mess. After consulting with the U.S. Navy, assistant district highway engineer, George Thorton, opted for the quickest method; dynamite. After all, it was how they removed stray boulders. The problem was that moving a boulder and detonating a cetacean were two slightly different things. Thorton had to quickly decide how much explosive to use so the whale would simply be vaporized in the blast. He opted for half a ton (Finn, 2016, paras. 9 – 14). The plan was to plant the explosives so that the blast would blow most of the whale chunks out to sea, and then when the tide washed them back in, scavengers, like seagulls, would take care of the rest. Whatever remained would be buried (Bacon, 1970, para. 9).

It took an hour and forty-five minutes to stuff twenty fifty-pound cases of dynamite beneath the body of Florence, Oregon’s Moby Dick (Bacon, 1970, para. 10). As Thorton and his crew were setting up their fireworks display, a Springfield businessman by the name of Walter Uemenhoefer, who also happened to be a former military explosives expert, approached and began critiquing their technique. He recommended that 20 sticks of TNT would’ve been sufficient to push the whale off the beach, and that a far larger amount than half a ton would be required to totally vaporize it. At the current amount they were using, it would just create big chunks. In any case, Thorton ignored Uemenhoefer’s advice and sent him on his way (Finn, 2016, paras. 16 – 18). Authorities moved the gathered onlookers back to the sand dunes a quarter of a mile away and Thorton gave the signal to push the plunger (Bacon, 1970, paras. 10 – 11). Thus, at 3:45pm Captain Ahab’s quest for vengeance was complete.

There is even video from KATU, the local news station on this story:

…because in the 70s we could get away with that without accusations of animal cruelty (despite the fact that it was already dead). Of course, nowadays we’d probably be violating some obscure law regarding the desecration of a corpse.

Turns out Walter Uemenhoefer was right. The blast blew sand and big chunks of the now rapidly disassembled Physeter macrocephalus 100 feet high into the air and in all directions. The spectators ran for cover, though luckily, nobody was injured. Uemenhoefer became reacquainted with the blubbery mammal when he, ironically, found that a three foot piece of blubber had crushed the roof of his new car. “My insurance company is never going to believe this,” he bemused (Carlson, 1970, paras. 12 – 15). The even bigger irony was the tagline of the sales promotion under which he bought the car which read, “GET A WHALE OF A DEAL ON A NEW OLDSMOBILE” (Finn, 2016, para. 25). Well, that’s for sure.

After the big pieces settled, observers noted that oily, smelly particulates where raining down. Furthermore, the whale wasn’t entirely disintegrated and the tail was still intact next to the smoldering hole in the ground. As Thorton walked away from the scene, a bulldozer gave the remnants of the whale a proper burial (Bacon, 1970, paras. 15 – 19).

In the end, the state filed the disposal of whales with high explosives under: Seemed like a good idea in theory, but in practice let’s not do it again. To date, federal law prohibits altering or removing pieces of a whale (presumably that law also applies to using explosives to do that). Subsequent instances of whale carcasses washing up on the beach are buried, or if the sand isn’t deep enough, then they are moved to a suitable location and buried (KPTV, 2009, para. 6).

The exploding whale’s legacy lives on, however, with Florence dedicating a park to the event and all the pieces of the detonated cachalot they couldn’t find. It’s appropriately called, “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” (Acker, 2020, para. 1). No joke. That’s what it’s actually called. I’ve never been there myself, but presumably it’s nice and doesn’t stink of roasted blubber.

References

Acker, L. (2020, June 16). Now you can visit Exploding Whale Memorial Park on the Oregon coast. OregonLive.com. https://www.oregonlive.com/travel/2020/06/now-you-can-visit-exploding-whale-memorial-park-on-the-oregon-coast.html.

Bacon, C. (1970, November 13). When they blow up a whale, they really blow it up!. Eugene Register-Guard. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=KOdVAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IeEDAAAAIBAJ&pg=6114%2C3133152.

Carlson, L. (2018, March 17). Florence Whale Explosion. The Oregon Encyclopedia. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/florence_whale_explosion/#.XyOVyed7nic.

Finn, J.D. (2016, August 14). The day whale meat rained down on the town of Florence. Offbeat Oregon. http://offbeatoregon.com/1608bT.exploding-whale.404.html.

KPTV. (2009, March 10). Workers Bury Dead Whale on Oregon Beach. KPTV.com. https://web.archive.org/web/20090615155544/http://www.kptv.com/news/18886423/detail.html.

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