In what local Oregon whale experts have dubbed “a rare occurrence,” the AP reported July 27 that 13-year-old Drew Hall was “knocked unconscious” by a humpback whale that hit a small “dinghy” boat that he was fishing in with his parents near Canberra, Australia. Hall’s injuries included a broken collarbone. He was also treated for “a concussion” at a nearby hospital and released Sunday. The AP also reported Hall saying that “he was fishing” when the whale breached (jumped out of the water) near their boat “off the north coast of New South Wales.”
During a June 27 interview, Hall told the AP that “he did not see the tail coming when it crashed down on the 17-foot (5.2-meter) dinghy, smashing its canopy. His mother Karen Hall said she saw her son knocked to the floor and thought he had been killed.”
Whale spoken along central Oregon coast where gray and humpbacks feed and play
Tourists are told at various “whale spoken here” sites -- in Florence and up and down the central Oregon coast -- that both humpbacks and gray whales “are not man eaters.”
In fact, whale experts at the local Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium will tell you that both the “humpies” and grays are not dangerous and will not hurt humans based on more than a hundred years of data showing little if any evidence of these giant mammals harming someone.
Yet, local tourists – who are now visiting the central Oregon coast region in mass to view whales via boat excursions out at sea in the Pacific – will tell you that when the whales frequently break, throwing most of their bodies out of the water and splashing down on their backs – that “it’s sure freighting when out there in a boat.”
West coast whales are still endangered by man, global warming
“The gray whale is distributed in an eastern North Pacific (North American) population and a critically endangered western North Pacific (Asian) population,” states local marine science information that’s shared in “teacher’s guides” at both the famed Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium in nearby Newport, Oregon. In fact, both the Hatfield and the Oregon Coast Aquarium’s mission is to “raise awareness about these amazing marine mammals,” that they call friends to man.
While the gray whales are popular along West coast waters – during their annual Baja, Mexico to Alaska migrations – the lesser-known humpback and even blue whales are also spotted along Oregon coast during the height of the summer season.
"Those are the two big stars of the summer season," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, whale census director with the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society. "We've had as many as 50 blues and 50 humpbacks in a single day. This has been going on fairly regularly for a few years now."
What’s known about the humpback whale that hurt the Aussie boy
The humpback whale is a large ocean mammal that can be 50 feet long and weigh as much as 50 tons. It can be white, gray, or black in color. The underside of the tail (fluke) is usually white. The humpback has the largest of all whale flippers. It has two blowholes for breathing. Also, the gray whale is very much like it's cousin the humpback, states a local Oregon Coast Aquarium guide for teachers.
Marine science experts also state that whales are also in danger because of pollution of our ocean waters, decline in their food source, and conflict with the sonar (loud underwater sounds) of military ships.
Although commercial whaling (hunting whales as a business) has been outlawed since 1970 there’s still issues with some countries in the Pacific who hunt these mammals that experts say may be more intelligent than man.
However, experts say the whale population is growing once again. But some commercial fishermen ignore those laws and illegal whaling still continues, and the loss of their food source is still a problem. Scientists and people concerned about the whale are trying to work with the Navy to control or limit the use of the loud sonar that harms the whales.
Whales exploded, treasured and a top draw for tourists along Oregon coast
Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous “exploding whale” event here in Florence; while, at the same time, both gray and killer whales, such as Keiko the “Free Willy” whale, are viewed as treasured top draws for Oregon’s billion dollar tourist industry.
Florence and the central Oregon coast are dubbed “the lungs of Eugene,” because it’s just an hour’s drive West along Highway 126.
In fact, the coast counts the Eugene region as its “main source of tourists,” says Florence tourism expert Sherri Garcia.
Whales important to Oregon tourism
Moreover, Oregon’s governor said tourism is the one thing that’s growing in Oregon’s economy. “Today it is generating more than $9 billion.
While whales were not addressed during this conference, these huge creatures of the deep are “branded” in just about every way possible here, “because they bring visitors to the shore,” says Garcia.
When looking back at 2010, Garcia points to the current draw of an estimated 18,000 gray whales migrating south past Oregon’s shores, the sighting of killer whales along the central Oregon coast and the lasting legacy of Keiko the killer whale.
Sadly, the romantic notion that Keiko the killer whale is still out there somewhere -- and ready to return to his former home at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport -- is not true. Keiko reported died back in 2003 at the age of 27 after a bout of pneumonia.
Still, recent sighting of a pod of killer whales swimming in and around Florence and Newport along the central Oregon coast and just an hour’s drive from Eugene, has started a new whale watching craze here, says Garcia who reports “daily Internet requests for whale information from both tourists in the U.S. and overseas.”
“Where else can you take a drive along 350 miles of Oregon coast that’s free and open to the public , and then get the added perk of watching both killer and gray whales swimming by. It’s one of the most alluring sites in all of nature, and it’s all free to those who visit here,” she adds.
Watching whales is a sight to see
“There’s Keiko, there’s our ‘Free Willy,’" said nine-year-old Jason Macy when he and his parents spotted a pod of seven to nine killer whales around the south jetty in Florence last Spring. Jason’s father Sam said his son is a big fan of all the Free Willy movies and watches them endlessly on DVD.
“For Jason, Keiko will never die because he looks just like any other killer whale. And, to be able to drive from our home in Eugene and watch killer whales swimming out here in the Pacific is just as good as knowing Free Willy is still with us,” explained Sam Macy during a recent visit to the coast.
While whales are beloved here along the Oregon coast, that wasn’t the case some 40 years ago when local officials decided it was a good idea to blow-up a beached gray whale.
Gray whale exploded along Florence beach in 1970
Call it an epiphany, or even a moment of clarity, but for whatever reasons – Oregon Highway Division officials decided to blow up a beached 8-ton sperm whale with half a ton of dynamite on Nov. 12, 1970, along the picturesque beaches here in Florence.
During recent 40th anniversary remembrances, locals are still shocked at the unintended consequences of such an over-the-top action.
In fact, the exploding whale tale is still a topic for jokes in nearby Eugene when people say they're heading down to the central Oregon coast.
“Long before we moved up here to retire back in 1987, we heard of the exploding whale. It was a joke amongst our friends down in California. They said ‘you’re going where they blow up whales.' We were not amused. Now, it’s 40 years later, and it’s crazy to think this wonderful town is mostly known as the place where they imploded a whale,” says Dustin Wygle of Florence.
In fact, Wygle still has a copy of a story by the syndicated humorist Dave Barry “that friends sent us.”
“Barry was a big deal back then, and when he wrote about the whale it went national. And, I’m told it later became famous worldwide when local TV news footage of the implosion started circulating on the Internet,” Wygle added.
How it happened, and why it was a mistake
This whale tale began on Nov. 9, 1970, when a dead 48-foot blue sperm whale washed ashore near the Florence south jetty area where the Pacific Ocean meets the Siuslaw River. For the following two days, the whale became a top curiosity for both locals and visitors who even stood on the whale to take Moby Dick types of photos.
Oregon Highway Division officials were tasked with “disposing” the whale carcass since it was now causing a health problem, and locals were complaining about his vile stench.
At the same time, state parks officials were at odds with the Oregon Highway Division about how to remove the giant beast from this popular strip of beach that served as a showplace for Oregon’s pristine natural beaches.
In turn, George Thornton got his way when he announced that his department would “blow up the whale.” At the time, Thornton served as the assistant district highway engineer.
Crazy event still draws tourists to site of exploding whale
November 12, 1970 was then designated as W-Day (whale disposal day) by Thornton.
Local and national news media planned to cover the event since it was a slow news week. At 3:30 p.m., local Florence police put in a call for backup as hundreds of spectators were cramming near the whale for the big event.
“Suddenly, it just happened,” says Florence local Jim “Skip” Curtis. “The whale’s body just imploded, and there was this 100-foot-high column of sand and smoke. Then I remember screaming as everyone ducked for cover as pounds and pounds of yucky guts and bones and chunks of the whale went just about everywhere. It was gross and so sad at the same time.”
Because a half a ton of dynamite was placed under the whale carcass, it turned out to be a very volatile explosion. Locals noted that cars and homes that “were blocks away” were pelted with blood and guts.
Of course, the resulting explosion was caught on film by local and national TV crews. And, the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the Oregon State Parks Department has a firm policy to “never blow up a beached whale or other sea animal again.” The current policy is to bury whale carcasses where they land. And, if the sand is not deep enough, the whale’s carcass is moved to another beach where it can be buried.
Image source of humpback whale: Wikipedia