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Wacky Oregon Coast History: Nov. 12 is Happy Exploding Whale Day, New Facts

Published 11/11/2019 at 4:55 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Wacky Oregon Coast History: Nov. 12 is Happy Exploding Whale Day, New Facts

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(Florence, Oregon) – According to some studies, including one done by the BBC, it’s the most watched TV news report off all time on the Internet. The infamous Exploding Whale of the Oregon coast was a remarkable and bizarre event back in 1970 in the little town of Florence, but it reached an insane and ever-growing legend status over the decades since. (Still shot above from the video clip by KATU).

For about a decade now, November 12, the day it happened, has actually acquired the greeting of “Happy Exploding Whale Day.” You find the salutation mostly on the internet every anniversary of the event, but you’ll occasionally hear it shouted in Portland, Oregon bars that week as state residents revel in the quirky milestone that brought some interesting attention to it.

Every year, it seems, new fun facts about the Exploding Whale come to light, including a goofy celebration held by locals, Exploding Whale Day’s connection to another infamous Oregon resident, and more.

It all began on November 9 when a gray whale washed up on the beach at Florence. It turns out, for those who want to make a pilgrimage, that spot is about a mile south of the south jetty in Florence.

A few days later, on November 12, hordes of media, spectators and crews from what was then called the State Highway Division (later ODOT, for Oregon Department of Transportation) gathered at the beach to watch a rather unique way of disposing of a dead whale carcass: the division had decided to blow it up.

Among the media was a young Paul Linnman, news reporter for KATU TV channel 2 in Portland. He’d started there a year earlier. With him was cameraman Paul Brazil. Together they documented hilarious history in a clip that in some ways has become more famous than the incident itself.

They snagged footage of engineer George Thornton talking about how the intention was to blow it to bits and have the beach critters gobble it up, and the idea was some parts would be blown into the ocean. Planting some 20 cases of dynamite on the leeward side of the whale (facing the land) would supposedly do this trick.

Early on, Linnman makes the famed statement of alliteration: “The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.”

The countdown is shown and in dramatic fashion you see the carcass blown into a pink, triangular mass. It’s estimated the goo and gore rose some 100 feet into the air. In the background you hear awe and wonder, and then suddenly you hear a “plop, plop...plop” increasing in frequency as the voices turn to shock. The film cuts off and Linnman explains they and everyone else had to run.

It’s here you start to really chuckle.

Switching to shots of blubber on cars, including one that had been crushed, it turns out there’s not just chunks of whale falling everywhere but a nasty pink mist. Now, things smell even worse and the public hightails it for their cars.

Crews spent the next few days burying the beast. The Springfield man whose car was crushed was paid by the state 11 days later, according to articles at the time.

A crazy and rather unknown fact: the famed footage was nearly not to be. Linnman and Brazil flew back to Portland without the film reel (yes, there was not even analog video then). They had left it in the trunk of another man’s car, but their news director was adamant they get the reel for the following day’s broadcast. Luckily, the man drove it up to Portland.

Another odd fact: November 12, 1970 was the very day Tonya Harding was born.

For over ten years the Oregon coast’s wacky exploding whale was mostly forgotten, until humorist Dave Barry brought it up in the late ‘80s. Then it started growing as legend until the advent of the internet in the ‘90s, when it “exploded” into people’s consciousness. It was immediately one of the most passed around videos, and arguably the first to go viral.

Then, the footage itself starts to make a history of its own.

In the early ‘90s, a Eugene man named Steve Hackenstadt started, which has since become the ultimate archive of the goofy happening. The prime progenitor of the clip – aside from KATU – his hits immediately went through the roof. Hackenstadt in one interview recounts a strange reaction: he got many doubters who accused him of faking the mishap, accusing him of blowing up the whale – even death threats.

Mostly, it’s been high praise, and Steve helped greatly popularize the phrase “happy exploding whale day.” He told Oregon Coast Beach Connection he's not sure where it originally came from, even though some have theorized it was him.

By the late ‘90s the incident was marked almost every year, especially on milestone years like 2000, 2005, etc.

In the meantime, Thornton, the engineer who headed up the project, never spoke to media. It seems his last contact was with Linnman not long after it happened, complaining bitterly “it blew up in my face.” He passed away in 2013.

These days, there’s even an AirBnB made of two Airstream trailers in Florence that’s called Exploding Whale Beach Camp. It’s not actually in the spot where it happened.

Exploding Whale memorial in Florence (courtesy Terry Abeyta)
This weekend's Exploding Whale memorial in Florence (courtesy Terry Abeyta)

It seems Florence locals have been putting on their own kooky little celebration to honor the incident for awhile. Terry Abeyta runs Exploding Whale Beach Camp, and said they had a “memorial” for the whale this past weekend. It included candles, an altar to the whale, musicians on the beach and plenty of goofy get-ups. One lady had a hat with blubber hanging off it. They ended the pleasant evening with a wine toast to the exploded whale.

Abeyta said next year is the 50th anniversary and locals are planning a much bigger to-do. Oregon Coast Hotels in this area - Where to eat - Maps - Virtual Tours - More photos of the incident below.

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