A Taxonomy of Cetacean Detonation

By Steve Hackstadt

Oregon’s exploding whale is not alone in the annals of history. Incredible as it is, numerous other whales have exploded and for a variety of reasons. In an effort to better understand the different forms in which cetacean detonation may occur, I propose the world’s first taxonomy of whale explosions.

Carcass removal

One may be presented with the dilemma of cleaning up a dead whale when either the carcass of one washes ashore or after a whale beaches itself and dies naturally. Once a carcass presents itself, one of two approaches involving explosives is typically used.

Land-based

A land-based, explosive carcass removal or disposal usually has one of two goals: either obliterate the carcass into pieces small enough that scavengers and the natural process of decomposition will expedite removal, or break up the carcass into more manageable pieces that can be hauled away or buried. It is possible for a failed attempt at the former to result in the latter.

Oregon’s 1970 sperm whale carcass (pictured above) is a classic example. After the carcass washed up on the beach, officials hatched a plan in which they would use enough explosives to vaporize the entire whale. Needless to say, it didn’t work. After the explosion, several large chunks of whale were simply buried on the beach. Other smaller chunks had to be retrieved from the surrounding area.

Sea-based

In a sea-based explosive whale removal or disposal, the goal is almost always to break the whale up into smaller pieces that pose less of a shipping hazard and will likely sink faster. In cases where whales have beached themselves and human intervention has failed to return the whale to open water, the resulting carcass may not be easily refloated. In other cases where a carcass simply floats into an area trafficked by humans, it is generally an easy task to tow the carcass to a suitable location for disposal.

A good example of this approach is what happened in Australia in July 2001. The carcass of a dead Southern Right whale floating off the coast of Southern Australia (pictured above) attracted both sharks and sightseeing boaters. With boaters climbing onto the carcass above the water and great white sharks tearing at its flesh below, frustrated officials devised a plan to use explosives to blow apart the carcass, hoping it might sink or at least expedite the natural process of decomposition.

Euthanasia

The need to euthanize a large cetacean has thus far typically arose when a large whale has beached itself, and attempts to return the whale to open water have failed. In such cases, the whale may suffer for a prolonged period as its internal organs are slowly crushed under its own weight. A beached whale may be subject to attack by other creatures or even abuse, injury, or mutilation by other humans. In order to end the suffering of such a creature, the decision to euthanize a stranded but living whale with explosives has been made several times in the past.

Providing a quick and relatively pain-free death for such a large creature is non-trivial. Most research attention in this area has focused on the so-called “humane killing” (pdf) of whales in the context of hunting. In such cases, there is an inherent desire to preserve the corpus of the whale (i.e., for meat, blubber, etc.). However, even in this context, explosive harpoons are a leading method, though they rarely result in an instantaneous death.

Other methods of euthanizing such a large creature all have significant drawbacks. A shot from a large caliber weapon must be aimed precisely in order to be effective. Multiple shots — clearly resulting in unnecessary suffering — have been necessary in past attempts of this technique. Drugs are often proposed as a humane and less violent method. However, huge quantities would be required in order to be effective on such a large creature, and locating a major blood vessel through which to deliver drugs may entail cutting open the still-living whale. While it may seem excessively violent, a carefully placed explosive charge can minimize unnecessary suffering and provide rapid death.

The best known examples of this practice have all happened in South Africa. The detonation pictured above occurred in August 2001 when 33-foot Humpback whale beached itself near Van Staden’s River mouth. Other South African whale euthanizations happened in September 2003 (a Southern Right whale near Sundays River) and September 2005 (a Southern Right whale on Mnandi Beach).

It is sad when it becomes necessary to euthanize a large, graceful, and inspiring creature like a whale. And it is made all the more difficult when it happens in such a violent and sensational manner. Perhaps science will one day offer a better understanding of why whales beach themselves in the first place so that such actions become unnecessary.

Putrefaction

When a whale carcass is left to its own devices, an amazing process can occur. Putrefaction is the decomposition of organic matter that causes the formation of certain gases, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. As tissues and cells break down, fluids are released into body cavities where they may anaerobically respire and produce gaseous by-products. These gases, while extremely offensive to humans, attract additional bacteria-laden insects. As bacteria multiply, the rate of decay increases dramatically and gases begin building up within the body cavity, also known as bloat. The increased pressure forces additional fluids out of the bodies cells and vessels and into the swelling body cavity. (See Wikipedia for additional details.)

It is through this natural process of bodily decomposition that a giant whale carcass can violently explode. A whale’s durable outer skin, thick blubber walls, and huge size may allow a longer-than-usual build up of gases to occur with fewer opportunities for the gases to escape. Such conditions may be more prone to explosion in the latter stages of putrefaction.

The most well-publicized example of a self-exploding whale happened in Tainan, Taiwan in January 2004. The carcass of a gigantic sperm whale was being transported through the city when it suddenly erupted. The pressure from the fluids and gases of decomposition — undoubtedly exacerbated by being under transport — finally burst through the whale’s rotting corpse, sending a river of blood, organs, and entrails across the street.

The image above hardly resembles a whale, but when this carcass of a young humpback whale was found in Alaska, the whale’s gut had inflated and was protruding from the creature’s mouth. While this whale did not explode, it is a very visible indicator of how dynamic the process of decomposition can be. A similar event happened in California in August 2005.

Literary References

Oddly enough, exploding whales have appeared in several literary works. Of course, Paul Linnman’s book The Exploding Whale: And Other Remarkable Stories from the Evening News chronicles his experience covering Oregon’s 1970 exploding whale. In addition, Oregon’s whale is also mentioned in some of Dave Barry’s books.

A less obvious reference can be found in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As the spaceship Heart of Gold approaches the planet of Magrathea, a sperm whale suddenly materializes in the atmosphere:

Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet.

And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.

Near the end of its fall, the whale has the following thoughts:

What’s this thing suddenly coming toward me very fast? Very, very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide-sounding name like… ow… ound… round… ground! That’s it! that’s a good name — ground!

I wonder if it will be friends with me?

And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence.

A little later, the crew has landed on the planet and is trying to find its way to the interior of the planet:

As they approached the ridge of higher ground they became aware that it seemed to be circular — a crater about a hundred and fifty yards wide. Round the outside of the crater the sloping ground was splattered with black and red lumps…. It was wet. It was rubbery.

With horror they suddenly realized that it was fresh whalemeat….

In the center lay the exploded carcass of a lonely sperm whale that hadn’t lived long enough to be disappointed with its lot….

“Come on,” insisted Zaphon, “I’ve found a way in.”

In?” said Arthur in horror.

“Into the interior of the planet! An underground passage. The force of the whale’s impact cracked it open….”

The ground had caved in where the whale had hit it, revealing a network of galleries and passages, now largely obstructed by collapsed rubble and entrails.

Wikipedia has some additional examples of exploding whales in literature.