Explosion · Oregon · United States · Whale

November 12, 1970 – The Day it Rained Whale Blubber on an Oregon beach

image of an exploding whale
Exploding Whale
Image Source: NPR

Because I am a Pacific Northwest transplant, I only learned of this story about 10 years ago. It is one of my favorites.

Since you can drive up and down the Oregon coast, it falls under the jurisdiction of the state highway department. So, when on November 12, 1970, a 45 foot long 8 ton sperm whale was found beached and rotting on a beach near Florence, Oregon, it was the highway department that was tasked with the cleanup.

The Oregon Department of Transportation consulted with experts at the United States Navy, and it was decided that they should remove the whale just like they would a fallen boulder. – BLOW IT UP!!!

The engineers for the highway department felt that it would be unwise to bury the whale, since it would soon get uncovered. They decided that by disintegrating the whale, scavenger birds would take care of the small pieces – problem solved.

This undertaking fell to engineer George Thornton. Poor Mr. Thornton stated on camera, that he was certain it would work, but, “he wasn’t exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.”

Mr. Thornton decided that 20 cases (1/2 ton) of dynamite should do the trick.

A former military explosives man Walter Umenhofer,recommended to Thornton that 20 sticks of dynamite would probably work and that 20 case was far too much and was not going to work. Mr. Thornton was not interested in hearing advice from someone that was not with the highway department.

The dynamite was placed in such a way as to blow larger chucks of the whale out to sea.

The term Rock hard is used by many people to describe various body parts; abs, arms, buttocks, and um… But I don’t know if you have ever touched a whale, they are fleshy just as a “rock hard ab” would still be fleshy not actually made of stone.

The resulting explosion was caught on film by cameraman Doug Brazil for a story reported by news reporter Paul Linnman of KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon. In his voice-over, Linnman alliteratively joked that “land-lubber newsmen” became “land-blubber newsmen … for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”

Chunks of whale went everywhere, and the on-lookers that were excited to see instead ran for their lives. A large chunk of whale landed a quarter mile away, almost completely destroying the brand-new Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight that Walter Umenhofer had recently purchased in a “Whale of a sale” promotion.

The Whale was not disintegrated, in fact, a very large section was right where it started. The highway department had to bring out excavating equipment and bury the remaining whale pieces.

The explosion also scared away any scavengers that they hoped would clean up the mess.

Lesson learned:

The Oregon State Parks Department policy is to bury whale carcasses where they land. If the sand is not deep enough, they are relocated to another beach.

Follow up:

George “Thornton had refused to talk about the exploding whale for many years,” The Associated Press reports, “once remarking that every time he did, ‘it blew up in my face.’ ”

Mr. Thornton passed away in October of 2013



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