Tale of the Tale-less Whale

The whale that washed ashore in Cannon Beach threatened to explode.
The whale that washed ashore in Cannon Beach threatened to explode.

ARCH CAPE, OR — Thanks to Court Carrier of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce for rousting me from an end-of-week stupor with the news that a dead whale was making its way toward Arch Cape. 

Carrier graciously offered us a parking spot at his house — which in Arch Cape is a big deal. 

But just as we were winging past Tolovana, Carrier texted to say the whale had been swept south. He advised me to go through the tunnel and take it from there. You can never really tell where a whale will come to land.

So my intrepid spouse — did I mention this was our 28th wedding anniversary? — accompanied me through the Arch Cape Tunnel in the early evening mist seeking a dead whale driven in the tide. 

I figured my best bet was to turn right to Cape Falcon, not far past the southern end of the bridge. You don’t really understand how rugged and deep this terrain is until you drive it in the dark. We drove to where we could see to the ocean, parked the car and I winged it down to the shore. 

In the cove, don’t take anything for granted. If you can find an entrance to the beach, you have to slip and slide on your butt or take a flying leap from the sideline. Don’t ever trust a branch or root to hold your weight. The cobble beach is slippery even when the tide is out and you need to dance a ballet on tiptoes. While I was scrambling around I heard voices and was joined by a couple more curious folks. Word traveled fast. All we were missing were tom-toms. 

We skirted beyond the cobbled rock and onto the sandy beach. 

At 7:30 the light was so dim I couldn’t get a good shot with my iPhone. Even with binoculars, all I could see was the blurry horizon. But everyone saw the lumpy gray blip in the water. In that dim weird light what we saw was what looked like a latex rubber giant hot-air balloon bouncing on the waves and getting bigger, bigger — much, much bigger. 

As we were backing up to the cobble rocks again as the sand receded and the water inched closer and our socks got damp, the big latex balloon was looking more and more like … a giant rat. Dead or alive, I didn’t want to be within 50 yards of this thing.  

Little did I know it could have exploded.

There was nothing to do but skittle back to safety and come back in the morning.

The next day

What I saw at 9 that morning was pretty incredible. It was the inverted belly of the whale all puffed up into a balloon-like sac. 

Would it, could it explode?

Seaside Aquarium’s Keith Chandler has been chasing whales, dead or alive, for decades. In 2003 a 17-ton gray whale washed to shore just as the Seaside Volleyball Tournament was about to close. Chandler was there. In February 2004, the head of a sperm whale washed up on Indian Beach. In late January this year, a dead 24-foot humpback whale washed ashore Sunday in Seaside. Chandler was there, too. 

“The bloat is the gas that built up inside,” Chandler said on the day of the latest beaching. “Is that a risk? Could it explode? It could. They have in the past. Not saying it will, but it’s always a possibility.”

I was completely unaware of the legendary Portland television news reporter Paul Linnman, who in 1970 was showered with whale carcass after the humpback was dynamited by the state highway department to get it off the Florence beach. Linnman wore that story as his signature.

And there are no shortage of graphic videos on the web, including the 2004 Taiwanese incident when a decomposing sperm whale splattered onlookers in an explosion as it was being transported for a post-mortem examination. 

That early Saturday morning, I snapped as many pictures of the freaky-deaky whale as I could against the incoming tide, blissfully unaware of the worsening bloat and its potentially dire consequences. And equally unaware of the tide licking at my feet, enough to make me scamper up the rocks and through somebody’s backyard to the street.

Lo and behold, shortly after leaving the beach, that belly did burst — whether it was with a bang or a whimper I don’t know — mounds of undigested krill deposited in the shallow waters of Cove Beach. 

By mid-afternoon, the tide pulled the dead, now deflated whale back into the water and back to sea. All that was left was a pile of krill and fish remains. I am told that the stench lingered.

Two days later, the whale was swept to Short Sand Beach in Oswald West State Park, 2 miles south of where the whale had washed up over the weekend. Chandler and researchers finished taking tissue and blood samples a few days later. The necropsy took place on the beach, where the whale carcass will remain.

“There’s really no way to get it off that beach because you can’t get equipment there, and you can’t get enough sand to bury it,” Chandler said.

Will it smell?

“It will have an odor,” Chandler said. “But I’ve smelled worse.”

So now I’ve got a whale story of my own. Is it up to Paul Linnman’s? Maybe not, but that’s OK. There are certain experiences far better seen on YouTube.

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