A Whale Of A Deal

Forty-five years ago, on November 12, 1970, the Oregon Highway Division was videotaped doing something that is almost as bizarre as dropping beavers from planes via parachute [1]. While trying to dispose of a rotting whale carcass on the coast of Florence, Oregon, a backup engineer who was uncertain of how much dynamite was needed to dispose of the carcass because the district engineer was off hunting attempted to blow up the beached whale with half a ton of dynamite, and the end result was a legendary fiasco. As a point of fact, the amount of dynamite that would have been appropriate was twenty sticks of dynamite or so, but the engineer used twenty cases of dynamite, a mistake of multiple orders of magnitude that ended up destroying the vehicle of the one person on the scene who was knowledgeable about explosives and who advised the unseasoned backup engineer that he was engaging in overkill. To add to the coincidence, the wise but disregarded explosives expert had recently purchased the brand-new Oldsmobile during a “Get A Whale Of A Deal” promotion in Eugene not long before.

Unsurprisingly, the engineer who screwed up had an excuse for why the blast did not work as expected, saying that the hole in the sand that had been made as a result of the excessive use of dynamite had caused some of the whale chunks to blow back towards the onlookers and their cars. Twenty years ago, when the engineer responsible had been in retirement, he claimed that the operation had been an overall success that had been converted into a public relations failure due to hostile media reports. Surprisingly enough, the engineer responsible for the blast was promoted to district engineer several months later, where he served until retirement. Also surprisingly, the incident itself did not attract a great deal of attention at first, being dismissed as an urban legend and too ridiculous to actually be true. However, on May 20, 1990, humorist Dave Berry wrote about the incident and noted that he possessed video footage of the event and that he watched it often. When an unattributed and lightly edited version of the post was distributed online, the Oregon Highway Division received many calls about the incident from people who were unaware that the story was decades old at this point, and Dave Berry received requests from readers to write an article about the incident himself, not realizing that what they were reading was a plagiarized version of what he had written about it.

It may come as some surprise to readers, but this particular incident has not only become an internet meme, but that books and scholarly articles have been written about it. A 1995 report from the United States Forest Service, for example, gives instructions on how to obliterate animal carcasses with explosives [2]. A group of scientists co-wrote a published study on the fate of marine cetaceans like the poor dearly departed whale of Florence [3]. Additionally, the story has become fodder for weird Oregon stories, as if Oregon did not have enough reasons to be thought of as weird already [4]. There are at least a few aspects to the explosion that should be noted. For one, it is not unusual for whales to be exploded to dispose of their bodies, but usually the whales are towed out to sea first, to minimize the effect of the explosion on the people around. For another, it is not unheard of for whale carcasses that are not dealt with to explode with lamentable consequences for the people around and their property. Also of note is the fact that the only reason the Oregon explosion had been done was a result of a policy which considered beaches to be highways at the time in Oregon, itself an odd aspect of a particularly odd story.

Let us briefly conduct a post-mortem of this spectacularly unsuccessful post-mortem. For one, let us note that success and failure was differently noted by different people involved. For the engineer in charge of the operation, the whale’s body was disposed of, and therefore the operation was a success, with no concern at all for collateral damage. For the whale itself, the operation was a failure because it was no longer alive. For the man who not only had his wise advice about dynamite use ignored, but had his car destroyed as a result of the operation, the day was memorable but for all the wrong reasons. He probably never bought another vehicle as he wanted no more whales of a deal. For those of us with a turn towards grim or sardonic humor, the incident is evidence of how out-of-touch with reality people can be, and how a focus on trivial matters can obscure larger truths. At least some of those truths should be transparently obvious. The best way to deal with dead whales on the beach is by prevention, to act in such a way that whales do not beach themselves and die on the shore in the first place. Once such problems can no longer be dealt with by prevention, all of the other options are undesirable in some aspect, because there has already been failure, and it would then be wise to figure out why the whale beached and what is to be done to prevent it from happening again. Once the failure of a dead whale is conceded, its body should be dealt with in such a fashion as to best preserve the dignity of the dead creature and to avoid additional damage to other life and also to human property. Often in life we are too much like the engineer, using too much dynamite, rejecting the wise advise of others, and looking back at the aftermath of fiascos without any lessons learned and with the mistaken belief that the operation was a success, disregarding the fallout for other people as we merrily traipse along on our way.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/fur-for-the-future/

http://www.offbeatoregon.com/H001_ExplodWhale.html

http://www.theexplodingwhale.com/evidence/resources/transcript/

http://www.snopes.com/critters/disposal/whale.htm

[2] Tour, Jim; Knodel, Mike (January 1995). Obliterating Animal Carcasses With Explosives. Missoula, Montana: United States Forest Service Technology and Development Program. OCLC 42276661

[3] Reisdorf, Achim G.; Bux, Roman; Wyler, Daniel; Benecke, Mark; Klug, Christian; Maisch, Michael W.; Fornaro, Peter; Wetzel, Andreas (2012). Float, explode or sink: post-mortem fate of lung-breathing marine vertebrates. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments, 92 (1). pp. 67–81.

[4] Linnman, Paul; Brazil, Doug (2003). The Exploding Whale: And Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News. Portland, Oregon: WestWinds Press. ISBN 978-1-55868-743-1.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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