'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Beached Whale

This post will begin with a sad episode and move on, thru more sadness, to what must be one of the funniest entries in Wikipedia. On the way, one discovers when a whale can actually *drown*.

Last week I got a unique assignment – to prepare and conduct a quiz on Computers at a State level meet of Senior UG and Graduate students from leading colleges. "The professors and industry experts guiding the proceedings will also be in attendance. So, do a thorough job!" That was in brief, my brief. I sat up late on 4 straight nights and put together a package of 40 or so questions(*).

However on the D-day, hardly any Graduates turned up and the competition got delayed so even from those who were around, many quit and we were down to just 4 teams, all Undergraduates and a thin audience - even the visiting experts had left. It was too late to chop and change anything so we went thru with the quiz... To those who were put thru it, let me say a sincere "Sorry Guys!"

Today, I was talking to Vishnu on what happened. I heard myself saying: "... for all the heavy preparation, the quiz was from the very beginning, like you know, a beached whale – caught out of its depth, it simply collapsed and gave up the ghost!" A short while later, I realized I had never used such a metaphor before; nor had I thought of anything on such lines in recent years; what I had said was only on the basis of some stuff read aeons ago in some children's magazine on how whales sometimes stray into shallow coastal waters and get mysteriously – and fatally - trapped there.

I went ahead and googled. Here was the first station in the journey - a 'The Hindu' report from 2006 on how a whale that got stranded near Vishakhapatnam Beach was forcibly hauled into safer depths by some large-hearted humans.

Then one sees the Wiki article on the phenomenon of ‘cetacean stranding’. Let me quote:

Cetacean stranding is a phenomenon when whales (and some other other members of that order) strand themselves on land, usually on a beach. Beached whales often die … the body collapsing under its own weight(**), or drowning(!) when high tide covers the blowhole(***). … Many theories, some of them controversial, have been proposed to explain beaching, but the question remains unresolved….

If a whale is beached near an inhabited locality, the rotting carcass can pose a nuisance due to its unpleasant smell, as well as a health risk. Such very large corpses are difficult to move. The whales are often towed back out to sea away from shipping lanes, letting them to decompose naturally, or they are towed out and blown up with explosives….

....“On at least one occasion, humans have blown up a whale carcass on land, with unsatisfactory and dangerous side effects. “.

And here is that story, the 'exploding whale', also from Wiki:

The term 'exploding whale' most often refers to an event at Florence, Oregon in November 1970, when a dead sperm whale was blown up by the Oregon Highway division in attempt to dispose of its rotting carcass. The explosion threw whale flesh over 800 feet (240 m) away. … In Taiwan in 2004, the buildup of gas inside a decomposing sperm whale caused it to explode on its own in a crowded urban area, whilst being transported for a post-mortem. The explosion spattered blood and whale entrails over shops, cars and bystanders but no one was injured.

The Oregon whale story (excerpts):

A 45 foot sperm whale washed up on the Oregon coast…. (the authorities) decided that it would be best to remove the whale the same way as they would to remove a boulder. They thought burying the whale would be ineffective as it would soon be uncovered, and believed dynamite would disintegrate the whale into pieces small enough for scavengers…..half a ton of dynamite was applied to the carcass. The engineer in charge of the operation, George Thornton, stated—on camera, in an interview with Portland newsman Paul Linnman—that he wasn't exactly sure how much dynamite would be needed.

Coincidentally, a military veteran from Springfield with explosives training, Walter Umenhofer, was at the scene scoping a potential manufacturing site for his employer. Umenhofer later told The Springfield News reporter Ben Raymond Lode that he had warned Thornton that the amount of dynamite he was using was very wrong—when he first heard that 20 cases were being used, he was in disbelief. He had known that 20 cases of dynamite was far too much; instead of 20 cases, they needed 20 sticks of dynamite. Umenhofer said Thornton was not interested in the advice. In an odd coincidence, Umenhofer's brand-new Oldsmobile was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber after the blast. He told Lode he had just bought the Ninety-Eight Regency at Dunham Oldsmobile in Eugene, during the "Get a Whale of a Deal" promotion.

The resulting explosion was caught on film by cameraman Doug Brazil for a story reported by news reporter Paul Linmann. In his voice-over, Linnman alliteratively joked that "land-lubber newsmen" became "land-blubber newsmen ... for the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds." The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings and in parking lots some distance away from the beach, one of which caused severe damage to Umenhoefer's parked car(****). Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach for the Oregon Highway Division workers to clear away. In his report, Linnman also noted that scavenger birds, who it had been hoped would eat the remains of the carcass after the explosion, were all scared away by the noise.

Ending his story, Linnman noted that "It might be concluded that, should a whale ever be washed ashore in these parts, those in charge will certainly remember what not to do."

Thornton was promoted to the Medford office several months after the incident, and served in that post until his retirement. When Linnman contacted him in the mid-1990s, the newsman said Thornton felt the operation had been an overall success and had been converted into a public-relations disaster by hostile media reports…

Note: Gulliver must have looked like a beached whale in Lilliput. One finds something figuratively similar in 'The Death of a Tall Man' by Ruchir Joshi, a smart and tongue-in-cheek obituary to Satyajit Ray: "(Ray’s) was a long body, six feet and four inches to be exact, and it looked tied down by all the flowers and wreaths. I could not help thinking of Gulliver washed up on the beach with swarms of Lilliputians twittering malevolently around him."

And here is a bit from Andrew Robinson's biogrpahy of Ray: "No artist is today more actively worshipped and studied in Bengal than Tagore. An impish drawing by a Bengali cartoonist shows the prostrate form of Tagore beached like a colossal whale and peopled all over by tiny figures in attitudes similar to a detective or archaeologist, examining different parts of the whole. The Bengali caption means ‘Tagore Worship in Lilliput’".


(*) I had initially thought of adding a few of the questions in THIS footnote but now I think it is better to spare my readers.

(**) Perhaps the whale's skeleton, deprived of support from buoyancy, crumbles under its huge mass, just as... well, our quiz went caput under the heavy-handed questions.

(***)A similarly terrible fate befell Dostoevski’s father – according to one account, “serfs caught him and kept pouring vodka down his throat until he *drowned*”.

(****)A whole neighbourhood getting a coat of stinking blubber is reminscent of an episode from ‘Three Men in a Boat’, quoted by Perelman in ‘Physics for Entertainment’, the offending chemical there being paraffin oil: from a can stored at the stern of a boat, the oil (due to capillarity) seeps into and thru anything and everything and after a while, the boat, the air, the shore, the whole city and the universe begins to reek of it.