Day 6

50 years ago, Oregon state officials blew up a whale — and led a news reporter to infamy

In November 1970, Oregon highway officials decided the only way to dispose of a beached whale was to explode it with dynamite. Then-reporter Paul Linnman covered the event, and ended up in a shower of blubber. Five decades later, it's an experience he hasn't forgotten.

Paul Linnman covered the attempt to get rid of a seven-tonne whale, and ended up in a shower of blubber

Paul Linnman was on-site in November 1970 to report on the explosion of a beached whale in Oregon. State highway officials decided that the only way to get rid of the decomposing marine mammal was with a half tonne of dynamite. (Doug Brazil/KATU/YouTube)

Originally published Nov. 20, 2020.

When Oregon state highway officials decided to blow up a beached whale with a half tonne of dynamite, it went about as well as one might imagine.

More than a dozen spectators gathered around the beach that day in November 1970 to watch the explosion unfold, including Paul Linnman, then a reporter for KATU News in Oregon.

Fifty years on, it's an experience he's never forgotten.

"As soon as we got out of the car and were still a good distance from the whale, and behind sand dunes, the smell hit us. I mean, this thing had been rotting for a few days and the smell is beyond description," he told CBC Radio's Day 6.

When the dynamite was ignited, things only got worse, Linnman recalled. While he has never been to war, Linnman says he imagines what happened next was akin to being in combat.

"We realized things weren't necessarily going well when we started hearing chunks of blubber hitting the ground around us, which you can also hear in the video," he said.

"That stuff is dense, it's heavy — and it was absolutely frightening."

WATCH | Paul Linnman's news report as it aired 50 years ago

More dynamite needed

Officials said that the whale, more than 13 metres in length and over seven tonnes, couldn't simply be hauled away. Neither could it be buried for fear that water under the sand would resurface it.

It was decided that dynamite was the only option. The explosion would disintegrate the carcass, officials said, and seagulls would snack on any leftover pieces.

But instead, large chunks of blubber — some big enough to crush a car — filled the sky, landing on the beach and dunes where spectators stood watching. Meanwhile, the whale was only partially destroyed, leaving a significant portion of the carcass left on the beach.

"They've never blown a whale up since and never will again," said Linnman. 

Assistant highway engineer George Thornton, right, was in charge of the project. The explosion only destroyed a portion of the whale. (Doug Brazil/KATU/YouTube)

Linnman says the man in charge, assistant highway engineer George Thornton, never acknowledged that using dynamite to get rid of the whale failed. Instead, he and his colleagues believed they simply didn't use enough of explosives.

"I also believe the state highway department is expert at blowing up hard rock things, making highways and such, and here they're dealing with a big, huge soft blubbery blood and oil-filled whale," he said. 

'A pretty weird event'

Linnman's three-and-a-half minute news report, which begins with the journalist describing the "stinking whale of a problem," is infamous for its generous use of alliteration.

"You want to report the story and let your audience know what happened, but at the same time, you want to let your audience know that you think it was a pretty weird event as well," he explained. "So we had a little bit of fun with the script at the writing."

The explosion sent large chunks of whale blubber flying through the air, with one piece big enough to crush this car. (Doug Brazil/KATU/YouTube)

Looking back, he wishes he had approached the story differently.

"We use some alliteration that I wish I hadn't used because people keep repeating it to me all these years later," he said.

But five decades later, Linnman says he's asked about it "virtually every day of his life" and he has spoken about it in university lectures. It's also spawned its own website.

"My bottom line is most of us come and go and are little remembered," he told Day 6.

"If you're remembered for something, even if it's a whale that got blown up on the Oregon coast, that's not a bad thing."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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