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The news seemed surreal and, for years, many thought it was an urban legend: a whale starring in an “explosion” in the middle of an American beach.
But it really happened. It was in 1970. And two decades later, thanks to the internet, the story went viral … and it became an example of how not to do things.
It all began on Wednesday, November 11, 47 years ago, on a beach near Florence, in Oregon, United States, when a huge sperm whale was found dead by the sea.
At the time, Paul Linnman was a young 23-year-old reporter who worked for a local news channel called KATU-TV.
That day, the news director called him to come to his office.
“He told me that he wanted me to go to the south coast the next day to cover a story, that he would go on an aircraft and that the photographer and I would descend there, and I thought: Wow, this chain does not spend large amounts of money very often. … What is happening? “Linmann tells the BBC.
He replied: “There is a whale, and they are going to blow it with dynamite . “
The next day Paul and the cameraman, Doug Brazil, landed in the coastal city of Florence.
An explosive idea
It is not uncommon for whales to bathe on the beaches of Oregon, but usually they are large gray whales. In this case, it was a much larger species: a sperm whale.
“It was about 14 meters long and weighed between 40 and 65 tons , it was huge!” Recalls Linnman.
The problem, as the journalist admits, was how to get him out of there.
“There was not an easy way to move it, and they could not leave it on the beach for several days because it would start to break down,” Linnman explains.
“They could not bury it either because the water under the sand would drag it back to the surface, they could not return it to the sea because it was too heavy and they could not move the whole body.”
“So the State decided that all they could do was fly it in small pieces and that the seagulls would take care of the rest of the task,” he explains.
The birds had been watching the corpse of the animal all day.
The idea sounded wrong … and indeed, it was.
Paul Linnman recognizes, laughing, that when he knew what was going to happen, he did not think it was reasonable. ” I could not believe it, and when I interviewed those responsible, I could not believe that they did think it was logical.”
“He was a news reporter and I did not put too much pressure on the authorities, maybe I should have,” he laments.
“Like in a movie”
When they reached the beach and got out of the car, Paul and his partner felt the smell of the animal’s dead body immediately.
“We were between 50 and 100 meters away and the stench hit us as soon as we opened the door of the vehicle, it was a horrible smell, I still remember it perfectly today,” he says.
George Thornton was the engineer in charge of the operation. He worked in the Department of Transportation and was a civil engineer (he died in 2013, at the age of 84).
The task was assigned to him because at that time his colleagues and bosses had gone to hunt deer, because that weekend was opening the hunting season for these animals in Oregon, says Linnman.
The journalist recalls that they were told to go about 900 meters away and that they would see a signal – a red flag – when the detonation was to take place.
“It seemed like a movie or a television show, we heard the ‘boom, boom, boom, boom!’ Around us, Dough and I looked at each other thinking about what was happening, and luckily, when I did my military service, I was never in combat, but it’s the closest thing to what I’ve ever lived. ”
“Those pieces that fell from the air really could have killed us, they were fired like bullets, so we started running.”
” We ran just 10 meters and heard a second explosion, we had no idea what that was.”
“When we descended the dune we were on and saw the parking lot, we saw a piece the size of a coffee table that had hit our car, so that was the second explosion, the windows had exploded.”
“Luckily, nobody was hurt, when we all saw that we were safe, we laughed for a long time.”
“Then we looked down and saw the wreckage and the remains of the whale’s body, the fuel, the grease and the blood, and it smelled even worse.”
Paul and Dough returned to Portland, the capital of Oregon, to edit the piece for the evening news.
Paul found it difficult to find the right tone to tell the story.
“It was very difficult to tell the seriousness of what had happened and at the same time give it a touch of humor, I think I did something like that, the script was fine, although today I would have read it in a very different way.”
The story was going to be another piece of the local news, but it ended up going around the world .
“Before the internet, there was a thing called electronic bulletins, I made filming easier for them.” Shortly thereafter, Dave Barry, an American comedian, wrote that this was “the funniest news he had ever seen in his life.” That got a lot of attention “says Linnman.
And then the internet came . And the “exploding whale” became one of the most watched television news in history.
“People from all over the world keep watching the video all the time, they have appeared in comedies on television, in comics, cartoons … Practically every day, two or three people – and sometimes more – mention me something about the matter.”
“It has been a topic of conversation for 47 years,” explains Linnman, who went on to write a book about what happened.
But why did it become so popular?
“People wonder why they did something like that, you do not have to blow up the whales, you have to protect them. ” Who would put dynamite in a huge and beautiful animal, one of the greatest beings that inhabit the Earth?