35th anniversary: "Tale of flying blubber…" (11/10/05)

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In conjunction with the 35th anniversary of the Exploding Whale, Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch interviewed me and profiled our exploding whale website in his column. The official launch of this website coincided with the article.

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Welch Nov 2005

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Tale of flying blubber keeps bubbling up

By BOB WELCH
The Register-Guard

Saturday marks the 35th anniversary of the funniest thing that ever happened in Oregon: the exploding whale.

Like you needed reminding, right?

Let’s face it, into every true Oregonian’s life a little blubber must fall – and, thus, do we, each year at this time, pay tribute to the State Highway Division (now the Oregon Department of Transportation) for bringing us the laugh heard ’round the world.

Who can we thank for helping keep the spirit alive? An otherwise unassuming Eugene man, Steve Hackstadt, mastermind of the ever-popular “TheExplodingWhale.com” Web site. It receives about 10,000 hits a day from around the world, triggering all sorts of reader controversy. (“You staged this video.” “Do you have any life at all?” “Would you rather rot on a beach and have people smell you until you’re fully decomposed?”)

And the site, naturally, has been revamped for the big 35th, now including not only the infamous KATU film footage but an interactive exploding-whale locator map for similar incidents around the world.

“There are still people who don’t believe,” says Hackstadt, a 35-year-old software engineer who works for NASDAQ. “Some think it’s an urban legend.”

No, it’s too perfect for legend.

In 1970, an 8-ton sperm whale washed ashore dead – this is an important fact, this “dead” part – just south of Florence. After considering ways to get rid of the stinking, rotting remains, the Highway Division gathered its finest minds to noodle a solution.

Being guys, they naturally figured a half-ton of dynamite would do the job. Most of the ex-whale, they figured, would blow out to sea as mist and any small pieces would be cleaned up by the gulls.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when one of those guys came home and a spouse asked, “So, how was work today, dear?”

As KATU’s Paul Linnman says while narrating film footage: “The humor of the situation gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere.” A woman can be heard saying, “Here come pieces of … .” The hood of a car is crunched like a pop can.

Books by Paul Linnman
The Exploding Whale: And Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News Oregon Golf: The Oregon Coast, Southern Oregon, Portland  Environs, Central Oregon
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Nobody was hurt. “However,” reported Linnman, “everyone on the scene was covered with small particles of dead whale.” Oregon rain – with a bloody twist.

For most people, the story faded. But on anniversaries, people like me bring it up again. In 1990, columnist Dave Barry saw the video and called the explosion “the most wonderful event in the history of the universe.”

Then, in the mid-’90s, along came Hackstadt, a graduate student in the University of Oregon’s computer information science department. He saw the video and slapped it on his personal Web page. “It’s a classic,” he says.

Indeed, the clip is to humor what the Patterson-Gimli film is to Bigfoot: proof. In this case, proof of how stupid we humans can be. “It’s not really about one man’s mistake because it could have been any one of us,” Hackstadt says. “It’s more about how we as humans so often think we have all the answers. And so often we don’t.”

Eight tons of whale blubber, splattered up to a quarter-mile from the ex-whale, attest to that.

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If engineers thought the idea of burying the whale to be impractical, the story itself refuses to be buried. It has a cult following, Hackstadt emerging as sort of the Pied Piper.

“When I get involved in something, I tend not to do it halfway,” he says.

Thus, does his Web site offer articles, video and all sorts of electronic bunny trails, from “other exploding things” to Hackstadt’s expounding on other whale blowups.

It isn’t a pursuit without risk. “I’ve received death threats. Some people don’t understand that the whale was dead when this happened. A lot of people are confused. It’s like: `You killed Keiko.’ ”

No, no, no. This story isn’t about death. It’s about a whale that refuses to die. A whale that lives on. A whale that, thanks to man’s stupidity, will always have the last laugh.


© 2005 Register-Guard