What could possibly go wrong?

By far my favorite tale of the Pacific is the whale that exploded on a beach in Oregon in 1968. Why blow up a whale? Why, indeed.

First, there are roughly 2,000 whales stranded on beaches each year worldwide.

Some are whales hit by ships, but most come ashore as a combination of bad luck or they just died of natural causes and washed up. The San Francisco Bay was one of the great spawning grounds for whales until the gringos sailed into the bay and scared them out to sea. The early Spanish observed the locals battling grizzly bears over the carcasses of stranded whales in the shallows of what is now Palo Alto.

Mass strandings are another story. As many as 400 whales have come ashore at once to their doom. No one knows why they do this, but theories include noise pollution from ships, solar flares interfering with their navigation or chasing prey into shallow water as the tide drops. Since these mass strandings have been noted in antiquity, at least those historic incidents were not caused by man.

Mass strandings happen with regularity in New Zealand. Over 5,000 have been reported there since the 1840s, far more than anywhere else.

From San Diego to Seattle there are as many as a dozen or so whales on the beach each year. So it’s curious that the Oregon state officials felt the need to remove a 40-foot whale from a secluded beach, but they did. The plan was to blow the whale to smithereens with 20 sticks of dynamite (the smithereen is a unit of measure describing the tiny size of something that has been blown up).

The idea was to reduce the rotting carcass from one piece weighing 30 tons to a gazillion tiny pieces (a gazillion is a Greek word meaning a 1 followed by 28,819 zeros, [I’m serious, you can look it up]) The local seagull population were tasked with removing the bits.

Buuuut, somewhere along the way 20 sticks was read as 20 cases, and this is what they piled next to the whale. Then they stood a reasonable (that word is, as it turns out, highly subjective) distance back and hit the switch. The crowd that gathered cheered but the seagulls, now rendered deaf and mostly featherless by the explosion, relocated to somewhere less concussive. The crowd lost more than a few feathers too and the cheering turned to into, well…other sounds.

Before the internet, the story was thought by many to have been made up. I certainly would have made it up if someone else hadn’t done it first. In the mid 90s I found a scratchy film clip (and it was film back then) blurrily showing an exploding whale. But to commemorate the 50th anniversary the TV station, which had the original footage, digitally remastered it and it is very clear that 20 cases was both way too much and not nearly enough.

So what happened exactly? This film has the whole story. LOOKOUT!

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5 Comments

  • Blubbering Fools I tell ya !!!

    Aye Captain until the nx Whale of a tale

    I have not said this before quit telling I have

  • This is an absolute classic story I had never heard of before. From the confident George Thornton interview, the massive explosion, the raining whale carcass and possible lethal chunk that totalled that car, this is 3:24 of brilliant journalism. Thanks for telling the story and sharing this video.

  • Why has this not been made into a children’s book yet?!…..wait…..thinking…thinking….yes, Dad, you know what to do..

  • A brilliant idea! Most classic children’s stories have some sort of dark side that is cleverly sidestepped in the re-telling, but this one has poor judgement and lessons learned without anyone even getting hurt. In fact, check out what I just copied: Autumn is launching a “scent-sational” new division, it said this morning, which will be called Smellessence. This new imprint will bring out a range of scented books based on its acquisition of rights in “ground-breaking new technology based on micro-encapsulation and touch activation”. I remember a number of scratch-and-sniff books from the 1980s (I rather liked them), but this technology, I’m told, is new: the smells have shelf lives of up to three years, and it hasn’t been used in books before. I think you’re really on to something here, Tyler.

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