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28 November 2013

Why do whales explode, anyway?

Sure, a gif of a man getting drenched in exploding whale guts is hilarious, but it could have been worse.

By Ian Steadman

Straight from Buzzfeed, here’s an awesome gif of an exploding sperm whale:

(Why not listen to some music while it loops?)

That man in the orange overalls is a fisherman from the Faroe Islands, where that whale washed up. He was trying to cut open the whale’s belly, which might seem an odd thing to do, but decomposing whales are dangerous things. As disgusting as that gut-spill looks, it could have been a far worse explosion.

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Whales have a tendency to explode after they die. As their innards rot, methane builds up in air pockets, and it can reach surprisingly high pressures. Eventually, without warning – kaboom.

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In 2004, bystanders in Taiwan experienced this for themselves when watching scientists loading a dead whale onto a truck so it could be taken to the National Cheng Kung University for dissection and study. Roughly 600 people were splattered with blood and guts.

The danger of whale explosions means that preventative measures – like cutting into whales to give the gas a way to escape – are common. Pre-emptively exploding the whale into small chunks in a controlled demolition is also used in some countries, as a whole whale can take ages to decompose. The idea is that smaller chunks are more easily eaten by scavengers, and it saves an unpredictable mess later one.

Explosions like that have been performed in Australia, South Africa, and Iceland over the last decade. However, no whale explosion is an infamous as that which occurred in November 1970, near Florence, Oregon. Authorities there figured that a whale was a bit like a large boulder, so used the same amount of dynamite that would be used when destroying solid rock – 20 cases. According to one expert after the event, they really only needed something like 20 sticks.

Huge blubber chunks flew through the air, damaging cars and remaining hanging from trees for weeks afterwards. The video of the event was something of an early-00s viral hit when rediscovered:

The lesson here is clear – if you find a dead whale washed up on a beach, keep a safe distance, and alert someone who knows what they’re doing.