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The History of Exploding Whales Is the History of the Internet Itself

My first whale video came in the form of a VHS tape mailed to me by a stranger from the internet.

Image: YouTube

I remember the first time I watched a whale explode. It was the mid-90s, I was in middle school, grade six or seven, and I finally had reliable access to Usenet. It was long after the September that never ended, but before the World Wide Web as we know it today. My browser was text-based, and the idea of consuming 14,400 bits of data per second was inconceivable.

I didn’t see the whale explode online. My introduction to exploding whales arrived via the US Postal Service, on a VHS cassette.

Over the past week, the internet watched a blue whale decompose on a Newfoundland beach, eagerly awaiting another potential whale explosion. It's far from the internet's first whale fixation. In 2004, a sperm whale exploded on the streets of Tainan City, Taiwan. The news report, featuring large puddles of whale viscera swamping a scooter, went viral. In 2013, a dead whale in the Faroe Island was degassed by biologists, to explosive effect. It went viral after a prominent Faroese diplomat shared the video on Twitter.

What’s remarkable about these videos is that, while viral videos like Star Wars Kid and All Your Base fade into internet lore to be supplanted by grumpy cats and K-pop anthems, these videos persist, emerging perennially to remind a new generation just how magnificently whales explode.

There are very few universal truths about the internet, but one thing is certain: Since the very beginning, we have loved watching whales explode.

My first exploding whale, the exploding whale of Oregon, started as a story with no source. There were people who claimed to remember it from an ancient broadcast, or a single article in their local paper, but most users on alt.animals.whales considered it just another tall tale. The idea of strapping half a ton of dynamite to a whale carcass seemed absurd, one of many ridiculous myths spread through the alt.* forums. Everything about the event was shrouded in rumor, from claims that it was a recent event to declarations that dynamite was used to euthanize a living whale.

But there were a few users who claimed, adamantly, that the story was real, that the footage existed. Articles, alleged to be lovingly copied from a yellowed original hanging on the wall of a local restaurant or discovered in microfiche archives—more often poor plagiarisms lifted from a 1990 Dave Barry column—began circulating. It wasn’t much, but we had a place, a name, and a broadcasting station. Calls to KATU in Oregon confirmed the event, but disappointingly revealed that the station had no surviving copies of the footage.

Someone had the footage. As the legend goes, it was found in the archives of an incident management firm hired to do post-analysis on the event. Suddenly, there were those on Usenet, a few initially, then more, who claimed not only to have seen the broadcast, but actually had a physical copy. Several people with access to the video offered to share it. I requested a copy. 

Having finally tracked down my own exploding whale, life moved on. I made the obligatory copies of the tape and mailed them out as requested. I never kept one for myself. For me, the exploding whale faded along with other fond memories of the early internet.

But the video persisted. Oregon’s exploding whale went viral before the internet had the infrastructure to support viral videos, when mailing a six minute clip via USPS was faster than downloading. When technology finally caught up with the demands of exploding whale enthusiasts, it rained down upon the earliest video sharing sites like slabs of ballistic blubber.

In 2006, the BBC determined that “Oregon’s exploding whale” was the fifth most watched video on the internet, with 350 million views. When George Thornton, the highway engineer responsible for the explosion, passed away in 2013, the internet mourned.

What is it about exploding whales that captures our collective imagination so thoroughly? It can’t just be the rarity or ridiculousness of the situation. The internet is bursting with rare, wonderful, ridiculous moments than languish in obscurity. Is it the potential for metaphor? Everything from Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s career to misogyny within the tech community have been compared to the dead, bloating blue whale carcass waiting to burst. Exploding whale jokes write themselves.

Perhaps exploding whales force us to confront something profound about ourselves. For all our accomplishments, all of our technological prowess, when a corpse of the largest animal that ever lived washes ashore, we are nearly helpless to move it. As far as we’ve come since the morning we climbed down from the trees, these dead, rotting carcasses taunt us, mocking all that we have achieved.

We can view these events as isolated incidents of online enthusiasm or as benchmarks for the profound transformations that have occurred over the last 20 years. From the early days of Usenet, where videos were shared not through the wires, but through physical infrastructure, to today, where were eagerly await news of the latest (possible deflated) whale explosion. The history of exploding whales is the history of the internet itself. 

We watched the transition from print to online news media, early in the last decade, and watched the Tainan City whale burst thanks to an increasingly connected global news service. We shared the pain of onlookers on a beach in Cape Town, South Africa, where a southern right whale was euthanized via dynamite, the kindest way to end the suffering of a dying giant. We watched a sperm whale vent its organs in a stream of confetti in the Netherlands and sent our friends to YouTube to see it, too. We watched a whale fall from a crane in Uruguay and tweeted with great joy. And in the Faroe Islands, we watched a sperm whale pop thanks to the tweet of a Faroese diplomat, unifying people and politicians in our global fascination with whale explosions. Today the internet moves as fast as life, and we watch in anticipation for a whale that hasn’t even exploded.

Exploding whales unite us in ways that few other events can. They are at once morbid, fascinating, tragic, and hilarious. They transcend boundaries and unite us in the shared struggle against an immovable force. No matter where you are in the world, no one has an effective solution for what to do when the corpse of a massive animal arrives on their beach. In its grotesque transience an exploding whale is beautiful.

Perhaps, as the internet continues to evolve, rather than attempting to define digital natives by what divides us, we should look to the moments that unite us, and ask the simple question: “How did you see your first exploding whale?”

Andrew David Thaler is a deep-sea ecologist, conservation biologist, and science writer. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the popular marine science and conservation blog Southern Fried Science and the author of two maritime science fiction novels. Find him on Twitter @sfriedscientist.