A Brief History of Exploding Whales

It happens! Pretty often, actually. And the results are ... really, really gross. 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

A dead blue whale washed up on the shore of a small fishing town in Newfoundland last week. A bloated, beached, blubbery bomb of a blue whale. As of 3:30 pm Eastern Time today, the carcass is still intact, but onlookers are worried that it might soon explode. Literally.

The concerned marine science communicators at Upwell and Southern Fried Science have created a website devoted to monitoring this situation:

HasTheWhaleExplodedYet.com. I kid you not.

A screenshot of hasthewhaleexplodedyet.com, taken around noon Eastern on Wednesday, April 30.

Blue whales are the largest animals on earth. This one has reportedly ballooned to twice its original size. In the process of decomposition, methane and other gases accumulate in the body of the whale. The buildup of pressure, plus the disintegration of the whale's flesh, could cause the whole body to burst.

The town of Trout River, on whose rocky shore the carcass rests, is bracing for what will come next—explosion or not, the 81-foot-long corpse is just plain gross, and it cannot remain out in the open indefinitely. Emily Butler, the clerk of Trout River, says the town is at a loss as to how to deal with the problem. “It’s only going to be a matter of time before it warms up and the smell becomes unbearable,” she told reporters on Monday.

Jack Lawson, a scientist affiliated with the Canadian fisheries department, told the media that his main concern was neither the stench nor the possibility of an explosion. He warned that the worst thing would be for a person to get too close to the whale and fall inside it: “The [whale] skin is starting to lose its integrity and if someone were to walk along, say, the chin — that is full of all that gas — they could fall in the whale. The insides will be liquefied. Retrieving them would be very difficult."

“I have fallen through the side of a whale up to my chest," he added. "It’s not very nice."

It's not exactly uncommon for whales to wash up on land, but the disruptiveness of such an event depends on how populated that land is by humans. In the case of Trout River, which only has 600 residents but swells with tourists at this time of year, it's very disruptive.

According to Canadian news, the whale is one of nine that died earlier this month after becoming trapped by offshore ice floes. Three of these whales have washed up on Newfoundland beaches.

Sometimes beached whales erupt on their own, but sometimes humans blow them up first—as was the case in Florence, Oregon, in 1970. The town of Florence may have been the first to confront the dilemma that faces Trout River today.

Oregon officials thought their whale was too big to cut up or burn; they ended up hiring a highway engineer named Paul Thornton, from the state's transportation department, to devise a plan. Thornton decided on using dynamite to blast the whale to bits. He figured that the blown-up pieces of blubber would scatter into the sea and whatever remained would be scavenged by birds and crabs.

What he did not figure was that the Oregon whale explosion of 1970 would generate one of the most-watched Internet videos in history and become the highlight of his career.

In an obituary for Thornton, who died in October 2013, Elizabeth Chuck of NBC News describes what happened that day:

Bystanders were moved back a quarter of a mile before the blast, but were forced to flee as blubber and huge chunks of whale came raining down on them. Parked cars even further from the scene got smashed by pieces of dead whale. No one was hurt, but the small pieces of whale remains were flecked onto anyone in the area.

To make matters worse, a large section of whale carcass never moved from the blast site at all. In the end, highway crews buried all the pieces and particles of the whale.

Broadcast journalist Paul Linnman, who had been on the scene, recalls that "the piece that flattened the car was about coffee-table size."
Today, Oregon's policy for dealing with dead beached whales is to bury them in the sand.
The world now knows that blowing up whales on purpose is best avoided. However, dead whales can still detonate on their own. In 2004, for example, the carcass of a sperm whale was being towed through the streets of Tainan City, Taiwan, when its belly burst, splattering blood and guts on nearby people, cars, and storefronts.
The Taiwan whale explosion of 2004 (Reuters)
A similar, albeit less messy, mishap occurred with a beached sperm whale in the Faroe Islands last November. The marine biologist who probed the carcass was dressed for the occasion; he later told reporters that the explosion, which was triggered when he tried to cut the whale open, "wasn't a shock." Still, as the video below shows, the whale spewed furiously.
And here's a video of what happened in Uruguay a few months ago, when a dead whale fell as it was being hoisted by a crane onto a truck bed:

These things happen.