A Brief History
On November 12, 1970, the people along the Pacific Coast of Oregon found out the answer to the question, “How many State highway Department employees does it take to blow up a whale?” Unfortunately, no rational people had actually asked that particular question in the first place!
On that memorable November day, a 45 foot long, 8 ton Sperm Whale washed up dead on an Oregon beach. Stinky and unsightly, locals not surprisingly wanted it gone. In Oregon, for some reason beaches are considered highways, so the nasty task of removing the whale carcass fell to the State Highway Department.
My guess is that these highway managers had little experience with cetaceans, so they consulted the US Navy, apparently thinking the Navy would have some sort of expertise about such things. They do not. Between the mighty think tanks at the Highway Department and the Navy, the decision was made to treat the whale as if it were a giant boulder, too big to move in one piece. Thus, the “obvious” (to them) solution was to blow the whale up with explosives into smaller pieces that could more easily be gathered and disposed of.
Having some explosive experience myself, I can immediately see the possible drawbacks to such a plan. So did a veteran with military explosive experience, Walter Umenhofer who just happened to be in the area, observing the hubub. When Umenhofer heard the misguided whale blasters were going to use 20 cases (1000 pounds) of dynamite instead of a more reasonable 20 sticks (about 20 pounds) he tried to warn George Thornton, the Highway Department engineer in charge of the scene, but Thornton would not listen.
The blast sent chunks of rotting whale blubber over an enormous area, covering spectators and commercial properties in the area. One large chunk landed on Umenhofer’s new Olds 98, crushing it. Ironically, Umenhofer bought the car at a “Whale of a Deal” promotion! The blast only destroyed a portion of the huge carcass, instead creating a large tunnel in the sand under the beast.
The incident was captured on news film by a local television station, leaving the Highway Department open to ridicule across the country. Not surprisingly, Thornton claimed the operation was a rousing success and that “hostile media” made it seem like a debacle. Again, no surprise when beached whale disposal policy was almost immediately changed to bury the carcass on the spot, moving it to deeper sand if necessary. The story faded into Urban Legend status until 1990 when it was resurrected along with film of the incident. (By the way, please do not be shocked that Thornton was promoted soon after the incident.)
In Taiwan in 2004, another Sperm Whale washed up dead on a beach, and this time exploded from natural gasses that had built up inside, covering spectators and nearby businesses with bloody goo. In other incidents where explosives are used to dispose of dead whales, they are towed out to sea before being blown up. If this seems self evident to you, you are not government bureaucrat material!
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