Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Blowing Up Blubber

Screen shot of whale removal explosion from 1970.

Early in November 1970, a 45-foot long, 8 ton sperm whale beached itself near Florence on the central Oregon Coast.  This turned out to be fatal for the unfortunate whale which, which, based on its size—about half the length of a full grown bull, was likely an adolescent female.
Sperm whales were still being actively hunted by several countries, most notably the Japanese, Soviets, and Norwegians though their numbers had been reduced to the point where the species was threatened.  Although the United States was largely out of the business, its fleets of whalers had roamed the globe from New England ports from the late 18th Century to the early mid-20th Century and had taken the biggest toll on the population of the world’s largest toothed predator.  The waxy substance known as spermaceti which is encased in a large compartment comprising most of the animal’s large, boxy head produced oils which were the most commonly used lamp fuels in North America and Northern Europe up until the development of kerosene.  It was also a fine lubricant for industrial machinery.  Bi-products including parts of the skeleton provided the tough but flexible whale bone required in ladies’ corsets and ambergris, a waste product from the digestive system, is still used as a fixative in perfumes.
The great American whale fleets—think Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, and the Pequod—generated great fortunes.  But when progress—and petroleum—replaced prime market for whale oil and ladies’ undergarments became all about the latex and wire, there was no profit left and American turned to other occupations.  The Japanese pioneered in new uses for whale carcasses, including as pet food, and developed modern factory ships to process the kill and were thus still in the business.

Not to be confused with Moby Dick...

Various whale species, including the great krill sifting Humpbacks and Blues as well as more diminutive Minkes were a common sight in the waters off of the Pacific Northwest.  But sperm whales were an uncommon sight.  So uncommon that despite the beached animal’s distinctive blunt block head, it was commonly reported that the animal on the sands at Florence was a Gray Whale.
Beaching of whale species was not unknown, although it was then far less common than it is today when various factors—infections and destruction of hearing by underwater explosives and Navy sonar technology—is suspected.  But this sperm whale carcass, which quickly began to emit a tangy aroma, was much bigger than anyone called upon had ever had to deal with.  The authority in charge, due to a quirk in the Oregon law at the time which classified the state’s beaches as public highways, was the Oregon Highway Division evidently because it had the heavy equipment and manpower to deal with damage and beach erosion after heavy storms.  Unfortunately it did not have expertise in this kind of mortuary disposal.
Evidently someone at the Highway Division consulted someone at the Navy.  The concern was that if the carcass was buried on the beach under the sands, it could become exposed again by surf erosion and that it was too big to haul away without being cut into pieces.  Nobody seemed to have the stomach to do that.  So the Navy, which had a hammer and saw all problems as nails, cheerfully suggested blowing the damn thing up and letting scavenging birds take care of the pieces.  Unfortunately, they provided no suggestions on just how to do it.
That job fell to career civil engineer George Thornton, who got the job because the chief district engineer was conveniently away on a hunting trip.  Although Thornton may have been a whizz at designing ramps, widening lanes, and overseeing heavy equipment, he had little experience with explosives—and none at all with explosives and tons of soft tissue.  Before carrying out his job he blithely told Portland TV newsman Paul Linnman that he wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.
Finally he figured that 20 cases of dynamite—half a ton—of explosives would do the trick and blow the whale away like a boulder that had rolled onto a highway in an earthquake.  Sand was scooped out under the body and the dynamite shoved underneath.
By chance among the growing crowd gathering to watch the unusual operations was Walter Umenhofer, a veteran with experience in blowing things up with the Corps of Engineers.  He just happened to be in the area scouting the location for a new manufacturing facility for his employer.  Umenhofer was aghast by what he was seeing.  He hastily advised Thornton that he was using far too much dynamite—ten strategically placed sticks would do the job.  Thornton was not open to unsolicited advice.  He proceeded as planned.
KATU-TV cameraman, covering the operation with Linnman, was set up to capture the blast.
And it was one hell of a blast.  The explosion threw huge chunks of whale flesh over 800 feet away, raining down on buildings, businesses, autos, and an actual State highway that separated the beach from the town.  One huge chunk fell on Umenhofer’s almost new Oldsmobile 98 which he had recently bought at a dealer’s Whale of a Sale.  Despite being built like a Sherman tank, the shiny new Olds was crushed.
Yet only part of the whale was actually removed—the part directly over the explosives, which also dug a deep hole in the sand underneath it.  Most of the carcass remained on the beach.  Worse, the scavenger birds counted on to devour the leftovers were frightened away by the blast and did not quickly return.
Linnman filed a pun-filled report with his Portland station, “land-lubber newsmen became land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”  The report was aired locally that night and was a one-day local sensation, soon faded from memory.
Highway Division workers had to come in and bury the bulky remains anyway, pretty much where they laid—and of course had to assist the local populace clean up the shreds and chunks of rotting flesh on their property.

....or Willie the Singing Whale.

Thornton maintained that the operation had been “largely successful in meeting its objectives.He was promoted within a few months and served out a distinguished career until retiring from the Highway Division’s successor, the Oregon Department of Transportation.  He would be plagued by questions about the operation the rest of his career and steadfastly stood by his assessment of his own success.
Someone at the Division, however, must have learned something.  A few years later in 1979 and not far away a whole pod of 40 sperm whales beached themselves and the Department burned and buried the remains in the sand.
Within a few years the exploding whale had become something of an urban legend of suspect reliability.  Then almost 20 years later on of May 20, 1990 humor columnist Dave Barry in his popular nationally syndicated Miami Herald column claimed to be in possession of footage of an explosion.  Without mentioning that it had occurred decades earlier he wrote, “Here at the [Exploding Animal Research] Institute we watch it often, especially at parties.”  An excerpt from the longer article ran in many newspapers as The Far Side Comes to Life in Oregon—a reference to the popular comic panel by Gary Larson.
The Highway Department was deluged with calls, many of which were from outraged animal lovers who were convinced the dastards had blown up a still living whale.  And although they gradually tapered off, they never disappeared.
However a story this good has legs.  The original TV story, or clips from it, became a sensation on the Internet circulated by a web site called which features all sorts of coverage of exploding whales—usually blown up by expanding gasses in their rotting corpses.  YouTube spread it further.  At one point it was reported to be the most watched local TV news story in history and had racked up over 350 million hits world-wide.
And every time an anniversary rolls around or some asshole with a cheeky blog like Heretic, Rebel, a Thing to Flout files a story, the folks at Oregon DOT are deluged anew with calls and the long retired Thornton has to fend off new generations of reporters.

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