We all know the famous story, and the equally famous video, of Oregon's exploding whale. But what I've never heard satisfactorily explained is: Why on earth would anyone think blowing up a dead whale was a good idea to begin with?—Some Lady at the Bar After My Show
Sure, hindsight's 20/20, Lady. We had a segment about the whale in the Dr. Know stage show last Saturday (which went great, by the way; thanks to all who came), but there wasn't time to get into the unique historical circumstances leading up to the explosion.
The groundwork was laid in 1913, when Oregon Gov. Oswald West declared the entire length of the Oregon Coast to be a public highway. People actually did use the beach as a highway in those days, but West's action was mostly a ruse to keep beaches out of private hands.
The beach still counted as a highway in 1970, when the whale made its appearance, so the Oregon Highway Division (later the Oregon Department of Transportation) had the task of keeping it clear. Remember, that's "Highway Division," not "Marine Biology Division"—demolition and construction technology was basically all they had.
Let's also recall that the decision to try dynamite was not made in the face of obvious better alternatives. Disposing of a rotting, multi-ton whale carcass is a substantial logistical challenge even today, and the generally accepted best practice—carving up the whale and carting it off in pieces—requires both specialized tools and specialized knowledge of whale anatomy (not to mention a strong stomach).
George Thornton, the highway division engineer in the famous video, died in 2013, by which time he was pretty tired of talking about exploding whales. But Thornton made the best of a bad job, calling as many experts as he could to find a solution.
Ultimately, it was the U.S. Navy—which you'd think would know what it's talking about—that told Thornton dynamite was his best option. (After it was all over, the Navy had the temerity to call back and say he should have used twice as much.)
So, two cheers for George Thornton, an Oregon hero who had one crappy day at work. We've all been there.