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Exploding Whale Correspondent: "I Got Over That'

Photo provided by Paul Linnman.

50 years ago this Thursday, (Nov. 12), the detonation of a dead, beached sperm whale in Florence ended in chaos. Instead of blowing up into fine fragments, the corpse rained back down in large chunks. 

While a car was crushed, no one was hurt, fortunately. KLCC’s Brian Bull talked to former KATU-TV reporter Paul Linnman, who covered the bizarre fish tale - and for a while, found himself wishing it away.  Linnman related to Bull how he got the assignment back in 1970.

Credit KATU-TV/YouTube
Paul Linnman, on the scene in Florence on November 12, 1970, with the infamous whale carcass.

Linnman: My problem was, I didn’t want to cover the story to begin with. I was a young reporter, I was 23 years old. By that time I’d already covered a presidential primary in Oregon, I covered an all-night negotiation, when the Oregon State Penitentiary was on fire when the inmates took it over in a riot. And having a great time early in my career.  

And then the news director called me in and said, “Why don’t you go to the coast today and cover the story.”  And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, they’re going to dispose a whale down there.” “And I said, “Eh…can somebody else do that?” (laughs)

He said “They’re going to use dynamite,” I said, “When do I go? (laughs)  They put us on a private aircraft that the station had leased and l had never heard  of that happening before.  So I figured it was a pretty big deal.

CLIP FROM ORIGINAL NEWS REPORT:  “It had to be said, the Oregon State Highway Division not only had a whale of a problem on its hands, it had a stinking whale of a problem.”

And so when we got down there, sure enough it took place much as we expected it would, and the explosion if you’ve seen it before, and you probably have, it looks like any explosion you see in the movies and so forth.  

CLIP: BOOM!!  (cheers, whoops)

Credit Oregon Historical Society/KATU-TV
A still shot from the detonation of the whale carcass by Oregon State Highway officials, on November 12, 1970.

And so that part of it was expected. What wasn’t expected was that it would blow whale parts all over everybody that was there.  Then it became kinda scary, there was a feeling on the part of myself and the photographer Doug Brazil, that were at one point running for our lives as this very dense material hit the ground all around us. Up until to that moment it went as planned (laughs).  And to this day I refer to it as the whale that refuses to die.  Because it’s been a part of my life virtually every day in the last 50 years. Somebody’s mentioned it to me one way or another. 

Bull: By the way, you talk about being a reporter at 23 and you’d already done these very remarkable stories.  At the same time many reporters feel that they are going to be remembered for one story, for better or worse. Do you feel like you’re branded with this whale story?

Linnman:  I suppose in certain ways I am.  I’ve got to tell you, Brian, I’ve gone up and down with how I feel about the whale through the years. There were times 10-15 -20 years ago, where I just assumed it not be ever mentioned to me again. I was really, really tired of it. But then I got over that, and I kind of accepted what was going to continue to happen in my life as a result of that one story, and my bottom line conclusion is…most of us, even reporters who do very good work, are not remembered at all.  So if you’re remembered for anything, that’s a pretty good deal.  Mine is a kind of a silly remembrance, but I’ll take it (both laugh)

Bull: This Spring, the City of Florence actually announced a new namesake for one of its city parks. As it turns out, it’s being called as “Exploding Whale Memorial Park.”  I was curious if you’d been out there or not.

Credit City of Florence
City of Florence workers install the sign for Exploding Whale Memorial Park earlier this year.

Linnman: I have not, my wife and I were asked to be Grand Marshals of the Rhododendron Festival Parade in May. That was canceled. We did a virtual parade and sent down some video. And then when they announced the name of the new park, which is along the river by the way and it’s nowhere near the explosion site on the beach. The river changed it course and revealed some land that they made into park.  And that became the “Exploding whale memorial park.” 

I was supposed to go down this month, for another plaque unveiling at the actual site but that’s been cancelled as well.  Or postponed. So I haven’t been down there yet, but I will tell you I was interviewed by a reporter from Devonshire, Scotland, at the time that park was named…where the town council, you may have read this…was using the unveiling of the park and the story of the whale as a warning to its citizens during COVID to take every precaution.

Bull:  No, I had not heard about that (laughs).  That’s amazing. It certainly still has a life of its own, and I’m guessing Paul, when you and I have both left this earth, 50 more years from now, that they’ll still be talking about it.

Linnman: It’s very, very possible. And I still enjoy talking to people that might recognize me from my work in television or what not.  They always say the same thing, I don’t care if it’s 8 o’clock in the morning, they’ll say “Hey, I bet I’m the first guy to mention the whale to you today”, and I’ll say, “No, a guy half an hour ago at Starbucks brought it up. So you’re second.” (laughs) So I’m resigned to answering any and all questions I possibly can, and if it’s still happening 50 years from now, they’re just going to have to guess what might’ve happened.

Bull:  Well, Paul Linmann, thank you so much for your time. And I really appreciate the fact that your career did not end in 1970 under a cascading chunk of whale blubber (Linnman laughs).  It sounds like you’ve gone on to do some very good things past that incident.  So thank you again.

Linnman: My pleasure.  Great questions, and thanks for having me on.

Note: The Oregon Historical Societyis hosting Linnman’s talk on the incident as well, November 12 at 7pm via Zoom call.

An extended interview with Paul Linnman can be found here.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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