The wonders of life under the sea are a mystery to many of us. All kinds of creatures below the surface and how their ecosystems work are still being researched. But every so often, something washes up on shore or breaks the surface of the ocean that causes people to raise an eyebrow.
One of those is exploding whales.
Although it seems like something out of a movie, whales have washed up on shores a number of times over the years. But why does this happen? It turns out that there’s a very specific reason for this, and it’s not something exclusive to these mammals.
Why do whales explode?
According to The Guardian, after a whale dies, methane gas begins to build up in their body because of gut bacteria. Because the bacteria multiplies so fast, it becomes trapped inside the body. Without a way to escape, it causes the whales to explode.
Interestingly enough, whales aren’t the only mammals that can explode. It can even happen to humans — but dead human bodies are typically taken care of before this stage of the decomposition process can take place.
In the interview with The Guardian, Dr. Olaf Meynecke, of Griffith University’s coastal and marine research centre said that the gases can be trapped if the outside of a whale’s body is still intact.
“If the rest of the body is still intact — if the outer layer, the blubber, is still intact and not broken up — then it can lead to an explosion,” he said.
But according to National Geographic, dead whales don’t just explode out of nowhere. It typically is the cause of something external. The efforts used to move the body before something bad happens can cause things to move around the inside and that can cause an explosion. But also, people who want to get souvenirs or climb the body can also cause big issues including tears in the whale’s outer blubber.
What happens when a whale explodes on land?
The impact of being directly next to or even near a whale when it explodes can be dangerous. The pressure can send a whale’s internal organs and anything else in its body flying into the air. It’s possible that this kind of impact can cause all kinds of damage.
In 2004, The Guardian reported that a whale exploded onto a street in Tainan, Taiwan. This not only stopped traffic in the area but there were whale parts of all kinds falling from the sky for hours afterward.
This incident is even more unfortunate considering that at the time, the whale was being transported to a university to be examined. This means that the whale’s body was no longer able to be studied and that potential knowledge was lost.
Here’s what to do if you find a beached whale:
Thankfully, beached whales don’t always explode. There are instances where they can be disposed of safely and they can also deflate on their own.
If you find a beached whale, it’s best to call experts to the scene. In the U.S., you can call NOAA Fisheries to report any strandings and it will not only dispose of the body but also deal with other issues involving marine life. It also recommends staying at least 50 yards or 150 feet away from a beached whale for safety.
A whale exploded on an Oregon beach once gripped the nation.
Sometimes, to prevent whales from exploding, humans must explode whales on purpose.
The most famous case of this was in November 1970, when a massive sperm whale — measuring about 45 feet in length — washed up on the beach in Florence, a city on the Oregon coast.
According to Oregon Encyclopedia, as the whale's strong smell wafted over the city, the body became a public safety hazard, as there was a chance people could fall into the whale's body (ahh!) or that the whale's body would spontaneously burst. So, local officials worked with with the U.S. Navy and weapon experts to create a plan to explode the body.
The team used half a ton of dynamite to explode the body, as onlookers watched from down the road. The explosion was estimated to be about 100 feet high, and according to a report by The Register-Guard at the time, "Chunks of the animal flew in every direction," and people nearby quickly started to "scream and run for cover."
Fortunately, no one was hurt by the storm of whale body parts — but the explosion was far greater than expected. And the story has certainly served as a warning for other communities grappling with dead beached whales.
This article, originally published on Nov. 14, 2022, has been updated.