The Day The Oregon Highway Dept Blew Up a Whale

In Florence, Oregon, on November 9, 1970, the Oregon Highway Department was tasked with removing a 45-foot, eight-ton sperm whale that had washed ashore and become a public nuisance because of the smell of decay. The job of removing the dead whale fell to highway engineer, George Thornton, who along with his team and in consultation with the Navy, decided the best way to remove the whale was to blow it up and have the remaining pieces be eaten by seagulls, crabs, and other scavenging animals.

Somehow, in the highway department’s calculations, it was determined that a half-ton ton of dynamite would be sufficient to blow up the whale into bite-size pieces. An Army expert with explosive training was at the beach that day and warned Thornton that too much dynamite was being used to do the job. Still, the half-ton of dynamite was buried under the decaying whale on the shore-side of the carcass in hopes of blowing it up and sending it into the ocean.

As is typical of human nature, a crowd of over a thousand people gathered to watch the explosion. Due to safety concerns, the crowd was moved back a quarter of a mile from the site of the explosion. As if on cue, the crowd whooped and hollered in the first seconds of the detonation.

Then terror set in as large chunks of whale blubber began to rain down on the spectators. Even worse for Thornton, a large chunk of whale blubber crushed the top of the Army explosive expert’s brand-new car (remember he was the one who warned about using too much dynamite). This story continues to receive attention to this day, 48 years after the event. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there are four key things to learn from this mistake (and all mistakes):

  • Don’t forget to ask tough questions. Before a person or team starts down a certain path, it would be good to ask tough questions. Has this been done before? Do we have the talent and expertise to make this happen? What are our other options? If this fails, do we mind if it appears on the front page of the newspaper? Take time to think through the solution that is being proposed.
  • Don’t get overconfident. Time and time again, organizations allow over-confidence and hubris to creep into their mindset - and then bad things happen. The business that is successful remains humble. A learning organization allows questions and discussion from top to bottom.
  • Don’t dodge the mistake. George Thornton never talked about his mistake in blowing up the whale and only granted one interview in the mid-nineties about the incident. He never got comfortable with how things turned out. Without the slightest smile or wink, he made the single statement, “This thing blew up in my face.”
  • Start with the simpler solution. We make things so much more complicated than they need to be. Many times, the simplest solution is the best and easiest and should be pursued first.
Slowing down, thinking through a problem, and asking tough questions can go a long way toward limiting mistakes and their consequences.

See you in McAllen!