"After 50 years, the exploding whale still lives..."

About this page...

The following article was published by the Register-Guard to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Oregon's exploding whale. The Register-Guard is the Eugene, OR, newspaper and was one of the only publications to cover the story at the time it happend.

After 50 years, the exploding whale still lives as the oddest moment in the history of Florence

Wednesday, Nov 12, 2020

The Register-Guard

A stinking whale carcass, a half ton of dynamite and an immortal local TV newscast — half a century later and the world is still in love with Florence's most infamous moment.

Maybe these days more than ever.

"It's got a life of its own now. It's just hysterical, especially this year," said Florence resident Ed Gunderson, who, just so you know, owns an exploding whale costume.

The Oregon State Highway Division on Nov. 12, 1970, decided it would rid a beach near Florence of the washed-up sperm whale smelling up the town by blowing the corpse to smithereens. The debacle is the stuff of local legends, but this one is known worldwide.

If you've never seen Paul Linnman's broadcast detailing the saga for Portland's KATU-TV, do yourself a favor and watch it. With impeccable storytelling and every moment on camera, Linnman's tongue-in-cheek reporting is the reason the story lives to this day.

"Our cameras stopped rolling immediately after the blast. The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere," Linnman said in the broadcast he's still interviewed about today.

The humor found in a rain of blubber chunks isn't everyone's taste, not even in Florence. But many in the town of 9,000 west of Eugene celebrate the exploding whale for its supreme absurdity, some turning their morbid fascination into business while others honor its relics as pieces of history.

The story has been famous at least since humorist Dave Barry wrote about the KATU-TV footage in a 1990 Miami Herald column. It's had a fan website for about that long. The footage has appeared on a smattering of TV clip shows and is spread widely online.

Dan Hankins, left, and Terry Abeyta run an Airbnb in Florence. they named Exploding Whale Beach Camp. The pair have been heavily involved in the getting the 50th anniversary party up and running. Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard

"People internationally are aware of the story, and we've had guests come from all over the country and the world to visit with us," said Terry Abeyta, who with her fiancé owns Exploding Whale Beach Camp in Florence near Heceta Beach. "It's worked well for marketing, and it's worked well for our hearts because it's light and lively and funny."

Fragments of the exploding whale's skeleton were donated to the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum more than 20 years ago, according to operations manager Harry Zinn. The huge chunks of bone are proudly displayed with many older pieces of local history.

"It was probably a once in a lifetime thing," Zinn said. "It was, of course, a big faux pas."

Harry Zinn, operations manager for the Siuslaw Pioneer Museum in Florence, visits a few of the bones salvaged from the exploding whale that are on display at the museum. Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard

Florence is more and more embracing its bizarre history.

Last year, Florence residents voted from among nine options to name a new park on the Siuslaw River as Exploding Whale Memorial Park. Though the 113th Rhododendron Festival this year was canceled, organizers themed the event "Blast from the Past" and adding to its logo a whale (unexploded) spouting rhododendrons. And a recent mayoral proclamation made this November "the month to memorialize the Exploding Whale."

"The majority of people look at it as a fun event in the history of our city," said Mayor Joe Henry. "It's fun with tongue-in-cheek humor that makes it a positive for our community."

A successful, non-pandemic weekend in Florence can include more than 20,000 visitors enjoying its beaches, restaurants and attractions, Henry said. No place else can claim the exploding whale, and Henry said that unique brand does bring some folks to town.

"Tourism is a major contributor and a major part of our economy here," Henry said. "I do believe it will continue to bring people here. We will continue to try to capitalize on it."

The exploding whale is not a part of the official Florence tourism strategy, said Florence Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bettina Hannigan. The weirdness of the exploding whale might suit the humor of younger generations, Hannigan said, but many of the residents alive at the time look back on the episode as an embarrassment.

"We considered doing an event for the anniversary, but we stepped away from it," Hannigan said. "It's just a little too quirky for us as a businesses representative to do."

Ed Gunderson (also known as Uncle Blasto), left, shows off one of his posters for the Community Memorial to the Exploding Whale celebration to fellow organizer Dan Hankins during meeting at the Homegrown Public House & Brewery in Florence. Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard

Gunderson has exactly the opposite philosophy.

"It's the only thing that anyone knows about Florence, but everyone in the world knows about what we did," Gunderson said. "I think it's so quirky that it should be celebrated."

Gunderson is a native Oregonian and moved to Florence about 15 years ago. Though he remembers hearing about the incident when it happened, Barry's column cemented his enduring love for the exploding whale — and he's doing his part to spread that love.

Two years ago, Gunderson sold about 100 "I Love Florence" T-shirts displaying a keeled-over, exploding whale, then donated the proceeds for local art student scholarships.

Gunderson is responsible for Flo and Rence, two whale costumes serving as something of unofficial mascots for the history of the exploding whale. Flo is a smiling, unexploded whale. Rence is decidedly less happy and, with Xs in place of eyes, definitively dead.

Gunderson is bringing his whale costumes Saturday to Homegrown Public House and Brewery. He, bar owner Elaine McMillian and Abeyta and Dan Hankins from Exploding Whale Beach Camp have arranged for a community memorial for the blasted cetacean.

Harkening to the festive altars associated with celebrating Día de los Muertos, they hope the community joins in creating a public display of local love for the exploding whale.

"We wanted to do a memorial to the whale and not let the virus take that away. So we decided on a community participatory altar," Abeyta said. "People can come throughout the day on their own and place a memento or a poem or something on the altar."

Homegrown Public House & Brewery co-owner Scott McMillan, left, and brewer Dustin Basurto roll out a freshly filed keg of Exploding Whale Ale in preparation for a weekend celebration of the whale explosion 50 years ago in Florence. Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard

The festivities' location comes with exclusive access to Homegrown's Exploding Whale Pale Ale. It's the kind of branding McMillian said memorializes her hometown's history.

"I like the fact that 50 years later we're still talking about it. I like the fact that we can use it in our town for marketing," McMillian said. "It will never die in this town."

Original article: registerguard.com © 2020 Register-Guard