Friday, May 8, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #105: Exploding Whales

As you may be aware, dead whales are often wont to wash up on the beach, and when that happens, sometimes they explode. As the carcass decomposes, gases build up inside of it. The whale’s thick layer of blubber helps keep those gases trapped inside the whale until they escape one way or the other. Bruce Mate, director of the marine biology institute at Oregon State University, told The Verge, “Release is sometimes slow, and sometimes catastrophic.”

To say the least.

Gradual deflation of a dead whale occurs when the accumulated gases seep out through the mouth, anus, blow hole, an injury, or some other weak point in the carcass’s skin. Towns often orchestrate what’s known as a “controlled release,” in which they drag a bloated whale carcass out to sea and then pop it with a long-handled knife. In Mate’s words, “You don’t have to go down all the way to where the pressure is – just create a weakness and walk away.”

Dragging the carcass out to sea is important – if the whale explodes on the beach, organs can be “propelled…30, 50 feet.” A person standing atop the dead whale when it explodes could be “blown into the air.”

Be careful with that thing.

On 26 January 2004, Professor Wang Chien-ping ordered a dead whale moved from a beach on the southwest coast of Taiwan to the Sutsao Wild Life Reservation, where he hoped to perform an autopsy on it. The whale exploded in transit, showering onlookers, cars, and nearby shops with whale.

Perhaps the most famous whale explosion was that whichoccurred in Florence, Oregon, in November 1970, when the Oregon Highway Division attempted to dispose of a rotting whale carcass by strapping 20 cases of dynamite to it and lighting the fuse. You may recognize 20 cases of dynamite as quite a lot of dynamite – half a ton, to be exact. Walter Umenhofer, a military veteran and Springfield resident trained in the use of explosives, was at the scene when the engineer in charge of the whale carcass removal, George Thornton, made the call to use half a ton of dynamite on the dead whale. Umenhofer warned Thornton that 20 cases of dynamite was kind of excessive, and that 20 sticks of dynamite would be more than enough. Thorton didn’t listen, and the resulting explosion showered pieces of whale as far as 800 feet (240 meters) away.

Naturally, a piece of the whale “flattened” Umenhofer’s new Oldsmobile, which he had just purchased in Eugene at a “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion, ha ha ha ha ha. Paul Linnman, a reporter for KATU-TV in Portland, informed viewers that “the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.” Pieces of whale rained down on nearby buildings and parking lots, and the blast “funneled a hole in the sand under the whale,” thanks to which onlookers and their vehicles were also showered, or, perhaps more accurately, pummeled, with whale. The majority of the whale, however, stayed right where Mother Nature left it. Now, the Oregon State Parks Department buries dead whales on the beach and, if the sand isn’t deep enough to allow burial, they tow the whale to another beach for interment.

Towing it out to sea and popping it seems like the easier option.