Giant whales wash up on the beaches of the Hamptons about once a month these days, it seems. People see them dead, floating in the surf just offshore, and report them to the authorities ahead of time, but there is nothing that can be done. Usually, late that day or the next, it washes up, all 10 tons of it. A humpback whale came ashore at Cupsogue Beach in Westhampton on May 23, and then, just two days later, another humpback rolled up near Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett. People come down to look at them in wonder. It reminds them of the power of nature and also how small we are—the folks supposedly atop the food chain—by comparison.
You can’t leave them to rot, of course. In the early days, the settlers boiled down the whale blubber in giant iron trypots to create oil used as fuel in lanterns. When one would come ashore, church bells would ring throughout the town, instructing all able-bodied men to drop what they were doing and head to the beach to help. Those who failed to come were punished.
Besides the oil, other parts of the whales were used as stays in dresses and girdles. The Indians got parts of the whales they thought sacred. These days, whales get carted away by highway department trucks, if small enough, or get buried on the beach if not. The one at Westhampton got buried. It usually takes a crew a full day.
All this was brought to mind when I learned that last week a beachfront park in the small summer tourist town of Florence, Oregon dedicated a new town-owned property by the beach as “Exploding Whale Memorial Park.” In 1970, an event took place in Florence that made it famous. You can watch it on YouTube (you’ll find a link in this story on DansPapers.com). More than 3 million people have seen it.
Late in the afternoon of November 7, 1970, an 8-ton, 45-foot-long sperm whale washed up on the beach there in Florence. Plans to cut it up and haul it away or bury it wouldn’t work. So on this occasion, the Oregon Highway Division—which had jurisdiction over the beach—got approval, after consulting with experts from the U.S. Navy, to blow the whale up with dynamite.
The idea was that the whale would shatter to smithereens and the resulting little whale chunks would be small enough to feed the scavenger birds hanging around at the beaches there for weeks. Back then in 1970, people were always thinking of new ways to do things, often with great success.
Not only would this be good for the birds, it would also be cheaper than doing it the old-fashioned way. In addition, local merchants at Florence supported the idea. If handled right, it would be great for business. People would love to watch this. They come out to watch old buildings get dynamited. They’d sure come for this. After all, not many tourists come to the town out of season. Surely the highway division was on to something.
The job was assigned to an engineer by the name of George Thornton. He was not sure exactly how much dynamite to use, but eventually 4.5 kg, or about half a ton, was decided upon. It was a bit of overkill, perhaps. But better safe than sorry, right?
On November 9, more than 100 people drove out to Florence. People had picnics there on the beach. Newspaper and TV reporters came. And the whole thing would get to be videoed by a camera crew from KATU-TV in Portland, Oregon.
Some people tried to count down the explosion from 10. This was just a year after the first astronauts walked on the moon.
Huge chunks of whale blubber were thrown way up into the sky. Far too much dynamite had been used. All the shorebirds, terrified, flew away. Spectators standing atop sand dunes looked up, screamed and then ran for their lives. And soon, pieces of blubber came crashing down everywhere. Nobody got killed, but chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere. A car hit by one of the chunks belonged to a man who had warned that too much dynamite was being used, and who later revealed that the dealership had advertised the car as “a whale of a deal.” Furthermore, when the smoke cleared, it was seen that half the whale still remained.
This had been a very bad idea. But in the weeks, months and years that followed, this event slowly came to be reconsidered something of a good idea. The town had become famous. People never forgot where they were on the day a whale exploded on the beach at Florence.
Which is why the good folks of Florence last week cut the ribbon to commemorate the biggest mistake that town ever made. The location is officially now Exploding Whale Memorial Park.
See a whale come ashore here on the East End? Call the stranding hotline at 631-369-9829. And don’t get any fancy ideas.