Why Do Dead Whales Explode?

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Decomposing corpses bloat with gases like methane and hydrogen sulfide, which have to find their way out one way or another. If a whale dies at sea, scavengers such as sharks might relieve the pressure by munching at the skin, but if a whale washes up on shore, the animal’s weight can cause any open orifices to seal up. Exacerbated by the sun’s heat, the gases build and the whale turns into a blubber balloon ripe for popping. Of course, humans and other animals bloat too, says Les Kaufman, a professor of biology at Boston University. You never hear about that because, simply put, “when a whale explodes, you tend to notice.” But not all cetaceans explode equally. When a 45-foot, eight-ton whale washed up on the shores of Florence, Oregon, in 1970, officials took matters into their own hands. They used a half-ton of dynamite to blow it up, hoping most of the detritus would blast into the ocean. Instead, the explosion sent hundreds of pieces of whale confetti flying as far as a quarter of a mile, smashing one car to bits.

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.