Tuesday, February 17, 2004

exploding whales? what's next?


Cetacean moments

The case of the exploding whale caught my attention while browsing through news from Taiwan last week. It happened at Tainan, the 17th-century Dutch capital in the southwest of the island -- taken from them soon after by Koxinga, the great anti-Manchu pirate-warrior, in the later moments of the Ming Dynasty -- and famous today for its coffin cakes, eel noodles, and milkfish congee.

The whale was the largest ever to wash up in Taiwan, by rather a wide margin -- an old bull sperm, 17 metres in length and about 50 tons in weight. (The previous record was 11 metres.) It beached itself, and expired before a large crowd near the old city.

The industriousness of the Taiwanese must never be underestimated: It was resolved to load the carcass onto a flatbed trailer, and truck it to Chung Keng University, so that marine biologists there could conduct an assiduous post-mortem. Three construction cranes were required, along with 50 men, but within 13 hours the thing was loaded.

The route to the university led through the middle of town, unfortunately.

In the retrospective judgment of Prof. Wang Chien-ping, a large quantity of gas must have accumulated in the whale's belly, through natural processes of decomposition, under increasing pressure. The smell, attributable to the same processes, had already become an issue. I speculate that the jostling of the whale, both by the cranes and in traffic, might have contributed to the later catastrophic event. As luck would have it, the truck was passing through a busy market street when the blast occurred.

The quantity of blood and entrails to be found within a 50-ton whale is apparently quite considerable. These were suddenly distributed up and down the street, covering cars, pedestrians, and shopfronts. I am pleased to report that no one was killed. A vigorous cleanup was immediately begun by residents of the neighbourhood, wearing face masks. Reporters arriving on the scene quoted them as being "disgusted."

In a quick change of plan, the administrators at Chung Keng decided they didn't want to receive the remains after all, and after repositioning the remains of those remains, the truck proceeded instead to the Shi-Tsao Nature Preserve. (A fine bird sanctuary, incidentally, on a migration route. And, notwithstanding the problem of cetacean volatility, I recommend Tainan to any traveller. It remained the chief city of Taiwan until the late 19th century, has dozens of temples, several ancient city gates, and a lively night market.)

Exploding whales have been a problem over time. It would seem to be an inevitable design glitch in large mammals. But spontaneous combustion is something to which Taiwan seems especially prone lately -- we read the other day of a lady's cellphone blowing up in Taipei.

Now, thanks to the universal fame of Dave Barry, who wrote about it, memorably, 20 years later, another exploding whale story may be impinging upon my reader's memory, even as I write. That whale, however, did not explode from natural causes, but owing to being stuffed with dynamite by the Oregon State Highway Division, on Nov. 12th, 1970. It was a mere eight-ton whale, that had been found beached and was, unambiguously, deceased. Since the detonation was pre-announced, it was captured on local television. The plan was to distribute the whale carcass along the beach near Florence, Oregon, in smaller pieces that could then be removed "naturally" -- by hungry seagulls.

The best-laid plans often go amiss, and after a very satisfying initial explosion, which drew cheers from onlookers, their tone suddenly changed. In Mr. Barry's words, describing the archived news footage, "You hear a new sound like 'splud'. You hear a woman's voice shouting, 'Here come pieces of ... MY GOD!' Something smears the camera lens."

The crowd began to run for its lives. The roof of a car belonging to someone named Umenhofer was caved by descending whale debris, a quarter-mile away.

In the excited phrase of Paul Linnman, the contemporary TV reporter, "The blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." Yet, in the end, "whale sectors the size of condominium units" remained at the original site. Nor did seagulls appear soon after (Mr. Barry guessed they relocated to Brazil).

David Warren for The Ottawa Citizen, 1 Feb 2004.

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