South Africa


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  • Date: 07-Aug-2001

  • Location: Van Stadens River Mouth, near Port Elizabeth, South Africa

  • Species: Humpback whale

  • Category: Euthanization

On August 7, 2001, a stranded, 20-ton, 33-foot humpback whale was euthanized with explosives on a South African beach after attempts to pull it back to sea had failed. Video of the explosion aired on local TV showing the front half of the whale erupting in blood and blubber.

Blowing up the carcass of a dead whale is one thing. Strapping packs of explosives around the head of a living whale and detonating them is quite another. An act of mercy to end suffering? Probably. But horribly, horribly sad nonetheless….

There are two articles on this page. Note that this website is actually mentioned in the second article! (See the bold paragraph.) Three small still frames from the video also appear at the bottom of this page.

Stranded Whale Blown Up on S.African Beach

A 10-metre long humpback whale that stranded itself on a South African beach will be put down by conservation officials August 6, 2001, after attempts to drag the animal back out to sea failed. (Reuters/E.P Herald, Port Elizabeth)
The remains of a 10-metre long humpback whale lie on the beach after it was blown up with explosives by conservation officials to put it out of its misery after repeated attempts to rescue it failed August 6, 2001. The whale beached itself at the weekend on a beach on South Africa’s south-east coast, near Port Elizabeth. (E.P Herald, Port Elizabeth via Reuters)
Tuesday August 7, 2001, 5:14 AM ET

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) – A stranded humpback whale was blown up on a South African beach after failed attempts to pull it back out to sea, conservation officials said Tuesday.

“We put the animal down yesterday (Monday) with an explosive device placed very close to the head area,” Sandy Thackeray, spokeswoman at the Bayworld oceanarium in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, told Reuters by telephone.

She said an initial plan to place an explosive device inside the whale was shelved as conservationists did not want to cause the animal any more stress.

When it was being planned Monday, she said that while the method seemed harsh, the object was to put the animal out of its misery.

Local TV footage showed the front half of the 33-foot whale exploding, showering a crimson spray of blood and blubber over the beach on the country’s southeastern coast.

Gulls swooped in for the unexpected feast and Thackeray said sharks were sure to follow as the mangled carcass slowly drifted out with the tides.

“Nature will takes it course,” she said.

Efforts to free the animal Sunday ended in failure after attempts to tow it with a boat were thwarted by rough seas.

Conservationists said the only thing left to do was put the animal down, but its size — it weighed 20 tons — ruled out shooting or a fatal injection. They said blowing it up was the humane alternative.

Some conservationists say the incident highlights South Africa’s inability to deal effectively with whale strandings.

“One of the issues that needs to be resolved in South Africa is how to react to strandings. There are some very sophisticated stranding networks in the U.S. and elsewhere,” said Jason Bell, the director of the South African branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

“We need to develop a system whereby we can respond quickly to a stranding and get a whale back into its natural environment… but if that fails, the only humane alternative is to kill it quickly,” he said.

The whale was believed to be a young male adult. Humpbacks can reach lengths of 45 feet and weigh up to 40 tons.

Scientists are unsure of why whales occasionally beach themselves. One theory holds that they may get disoriented and not realize they are in shallow water or so close to the shore.

Original article: © 2001 Reuters

Tales of Whales: Whale whoppers

Posted: 8/11/01

by Lucille Parker, Features Editor

As winter (officially, anyway) draws to a close in our fair land, all eyes traditionally take to scanning the bays and inlets around the coast in the hope of seeing the thrilling sight of whales spouting off close to shore — whale-watching has become a big money-spinner for the tourist industry, and a source of pleasure for the local populace.

Every year at this time we start reading press reports about whales — sightings, travel ideas, reports of whale harrassment by humans on everything from boats to ‘lilos’, whale festivals (the big one at Hermanus is coming up soon — more about that later), and then, often, there are sad stories too of mysterious whale strandings.

Last weekend brought us one such sad story — a humpbacked whale was found beached at Van Staden’s River Mouth, about 40kms west of Port Elizabeth. The whale, according to reports, was still living so a bunch of good samaritans gathered to attempt to return it to the sea. The sheer size of the animal made this — according to conservation officials — an impossible undertaking, so eventually, after nine hours of trying, to spare it further suffering, Marine and Coastal Management officials gave instructions for the whale to be blown up.

A press report about the incident said: “The police carried out a demolition-controlled explosion and death was instantaneous.”

Wendy Kant, research assistant at Bayworld Aquarium, was quoted as saying the whale’s death was “horrible to see, but it was the humane thing to do”. One can only imagine how “horrible” the sight of an exploding whale weighing 20 tons (the reported weight of this animal was 20 tons) must be, particularly as the explosives were “inserted into the whale” before being detonated.

Surprisingly there has been little or no comment from animal rights activists (usually so vigilant and verbose on the subject of whales and dolphins) on this event, so one can only assume that blowing up the whale was regarded as acceptable in the circumstances.

I set out to search the Internet for other incidents of humanely killing beached whales with explosives and found two, one in America and one in Australia.1 Believe it or not, the American exploding whale was regarded with such incredulity that it started out as a major cyber-joke!

Back in 1990 an American humour columnist, Dave Barry, wrote an article about the fact that he had videotaped the explosion of a dead, rotting sperm whale which had beached just south of Florence, Oregon. Barry insisted the story was true, but readers apparently thought it was all made up to raise some laughs — who would explode a whale? Jocular Internet users started syndicating the story by email, and it was even listed on a popular urban legend website.

One man was particularly taken with the story, and created his own website on the Oregon exploding whale2 incident, which is still online and drawing feedback to this day. Steve Hackstadt, who created this site, tells us that he is very interested in South Africa’s whale explosion and has asked to “keep me posted” with developments.

We took a look at some of the comments on Steve’s “feedback” page, and discovered a reported whale explosion in Australia. According to a feedback forum posting on July 30 from Bhautik Joshi of New South Wales, the Sydney Morning Herald had reported on the fact that a dead Southern Right Wale had been towed out to sea near Kangaroo Island and was to be blown up. While awaiting destruction the whale carcass drew plenty of interest. “People have hired boats to watch the sharks bite into the whale carcass — some have even clambered onto the carcass with children,” according to the newspaper report. Apparently Transport South Australia, fearing the whale would become a hazard to shipping and pose an environmental threat, enlisted the aid of the police bomb squad to destroy the carcass.

It seems the Australian authorities were attempting to soften the blow of the operation — they said a “small charge” would be used “which we hope will cause it (the carcass) to sink, or at least speed up its decomposition, allowing sharks and other marine creatures to dispose of it in the natural way.

So, South Africans can rest assured that the Van Staden’s humpback was not the first whale to meet a messy end — although of course, ours was alive whereas in these other cases the animals involved had already died naturally.

The big question posed by the bizarre business of exploding whales lies in why the creatures are on the shore in the first place. For thousands of years there have been reports of whales — and dolphins — beaching themselves (often en masse). No-one has yet been able to fathom whether this is suicide (and if so, why they do it) or whether the large mammals just simple make a navigational error.

Research into whale behaviour is ongoing — meanwhile, laymen can enjoy the antics of these leviathans of the deep at locations like Hermanus — South Africa’s self-crowned “whale capital” where the annual whale festival will be held from September 28 to October 7 this year. The festival includes a Marine Enviro Expo which will showcase all the latest information on whales, whale research, whale watching tours, conservation, nature reserves and marine and nature activities. Let’s hope the whales co-operate, and that the only explosions will be from fireworks!

Original article: © 2001


  1. Here the author implies that both the “American” and “Australian” exploding whales were instances of euthanization with explosives, which is incorrect in both cases. However, she later states quite clearly that both whales were blown up in order to destroy/remove a carcass.

  2. The original article linked to a previous web address for this site. The link address has been updated in this transcription of the article.

Still frames from video

The video of this exploding whale is very graphic and somewhat disturbing. It will not be posted on this site. Instead, we’ve posted three key frames of the video, reduced in size, in order to document explosion.

The explosive charge is strapped on top of the whale.
The moment of detonation
The whale’s body erupts.